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What to Do if You Think You Have Pinkeye

How Do You Know if You Have Pink Eye?

Every day, I, as an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases) receive at least one telephone call from a patient who says, "I think I have pinkeye." When I ask him or her what the symptoms are, he usually will tell me that one or both eyes are red, tearing, itching, and uncomfortable. I will then ask him to come in for an examination that day.

Pinkeye is a nonmedical term which is commonly used by patients to describe conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the transparent covering of the white of the eye and inside of the eyelids). I consider pinkeye as synonymous with viral conjunctivitis, an infection caused by a variety of viruses in the eye. Most of these viruses reside in the respiratory tract and are spread through the air or by hand to eye contact.

When I speak with a patient such as this in the office, I ask whether he or she also has symptoms of light sensitivity, lids stuck together in the morning upon awakening, discharge, or a sensation of having something in the eye, all of which are common with pinkeye. The patient may have or have had a recent cold. Recent antibiotic usage also increases the risk of pinkeye. Family members may have or have had the same symptoms, indicative of an infection is being passed from one person to another.

When I examine this patient, the vision is usually not affected. There may be a tender pea-sized lymph node in front of the ear on one or both sides. The eyelids may be swollen and one or both eyes will be red and tearing. There usually is thin drainage from the affected eye(s). Viral conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes, although the severity or onset of signs and symptoms may be different between the two eyes. The other eye structures will be normal.

As I examine the eye, I am looking for signs of other common causes of a red eye, such as allergy or dry eye. I am also making certain that there are no more serious problems, such as herpes infection, bacterial infection, fungal or amebic infection, corneal ulceration, or evidence of deeper involvement of the eye.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/30/2017

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