It's "Pink Eye" season, as well as flu season. Like most terms for diseases, "Pink Eye" is a term that gets batted around freely, and usually inaccurately. Let's clear up this concept a bit.
WHAT IS PINK EYE?
Pink eye is better known as "infectious conjunctivitis," a contagious infection of the eye which is fortunately very benign. There are strange varieties of this in the developing world, but here in the U.S. there are just 2 main types. Both cause the eye or eyes to be red, painful, itchy, sensitive to light, and sometimes full of mucus and pus. Pink eye lasts weeks. If your eyes are itchy, watery, or bothersome intermittently for months or years, you don't have pink eye, you have eye allergies.
THE 2 TYPES OF PINK EYE:
1. Viral conjunctivitis- this accounts for more than 90% of cases of pink eye. There is no cure, you just have to suffer for 2-4 weeks until it goes away. Most people, including doctors, incorrectly think that you need antibiotic eye drops to treat this. You don't. Antibiotic eye drops for viral pink eye will either do nothing, or make your eyes burn more.
2. Bacterial conjunctivitis- this causes about 5-10% of cases of pink eye. It usually affects just one eye, and is not quite as contagious to others. This type of pink eye gets gradually worse without treatment with antibiotic drops, and it DOES NOT go away on its own.
HOW DO YOU TELL VIRAL PINK EYE FROM BACTERIAL PINK EYE?
Fortunately, it's not that hard. Bacterial pink eye (the one that requires antibiotic drops) produces large amounts of white or yellow pus in the eye, so that in the morning the eye is crusty and initially hard to open. It's quite painful, and while it can be in both eyes, it's usually just in one eye. It also progresses; each day it gets more red, more painful, and there is more pus. So if you think you have bacterial pink eye, see your doctor!
By contrast, the common viral pink eye is very annoying, but does not get worse day by day. It can be painful and irritating, and it easily spreads to the other eye. It can also produce a lot of mucus in the eye, but this is usually clear mucus that is sticky in the morning and more "runny" the rest of the day. It's not white or yellow mucus. NO eye drops will shorten the duration of viral pink eye.
HOW DOES PINK EYE SPREAD?
1. Bacterial: infected body secretions have to actually get into your eye to give you bacterial pink eye. Babies can get it just from being born, via contact with vaginal bacteria (all babies are usually given a dose of eye ointment at birth to prevent this). But you can probably get it from the saliva, snot, or eye secretions of your child, spouse, or friend. So if someone you're in close contact with probably has bacterial pink eye, see your doctor if your eye starts bothering you.
2. Viral: viral pink eye is very contagious. It almost seems to spread via "ESP" or perhaps through the "fabric of the universe." It's possible that it can travel on water vapor in the air, and just "land on" your eye. It certainly can be spread by close contact with infected people, especially if you happen to rub your eye. If your child has viral pink eye, I suggest you simply get some sunglasses and assume you'll have it within the week.
HOW DO YOU TREAT PINK EYE?
1. Bacterial: get some antibiotic drops from your doctor; most eye doctors and optometrists can write a prescription for these as well. Put a cold, wet towel over your closed eye for 10 minutes periodically- it can be very soothing. Take ibuprofen or naproxen for the pain. You'll be better soon.
2. Viral: you can try anti-inflammatory drops such as Naphcon, Zaditor, Ophcon, or Visine; they usually don't help much. A lubricating drop such as "Artificial Tears" is probably more helpful. Use a cool compress on your eye or eyes when you have time. Wear sunglasses. Try some ibuprofen or naproxen. Rest. You won't be better that soon, but there are worse diseases to have.
WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE PINK EYE, BACTERIAL OR VIRAL:
-Don't wear contact lenses
-Don't swim in chlorinated pools (not dangerous to do, just painful)
-Don't handle other people's small children
-Don't get eye surgery
-Don't ask your doctor for narcotics (we know it doesn't hurt that bad)