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march/april 2011

Ask the Doctor

What is pink eye, and how is it treated?

Nida Sen, M.D., M.H.Sc.
Nida Sen, M.D., M.H.Sc.
Staff Clinician
National Eye Institute

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, involves inflammation of the outer layer of the eye and inside of the eyelid. It is most commonly caused by viruses, bacteria or allergies. Pink eye often develops after a person has a cold or has flu-like symptoms, says NEI staff clinician Nida Sen, M.D., M.H.Sc. It causes the eyes to become red and irritated, with a weepy discharge.

"Conjunctivitis can be contagious, and typically spreads from person to person through hand contact with someone who is infected," Dr. Sen explains.

"Use separate towels, disinfect toys and other objects that are frequently handled, and make sure everyone who might be exposed washes their hands often," Dr. Sen says.

Treatment for this infection depends on its cause, which can be determined by an eye care professional. If it is bacterial, your doctor can prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment, Dr. Sen says. If it is viral, the infection will clear up on its own in most cases. If you have pink eye from an allergy, you may benefit from eye drops for allergies. Anyone who is diagnosed with this infection should avoid using contact lenses, Dr. Sen adds.

"In most people, pink eye causes no lasting problems, but in rare cases it can be associated with a more serious disorder," she says. "If you notice a change in your vision, you should inform your eye care professional."

To ease discomfort while pink eye clears, using artificial tears and cold or warm compresses (depending on the underlying reason for the infection) may help. While the infection remains, however, it is important to avoid passing it to others. "Use separate towels, disinfect toys and other objects that are frequently handled, and make sure everyone who might be exposed washes their hands often," Dr. Sen says.

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Department of Health and Human Services NIH, the National Institutes of Health USA.gov