It’s that time of year again…coughs, sneezing, running noses and itchy, red eyes. How do you know when an eye irritation is something that needs medical attention?
First of all, any time an eye infection is accompanied by fever, excessive discharge or pain, you should see your eye doctor immediately.
The eyes are sensitive and there could be a number of factors that contribute to discomfort and irritation, some of which require medication. There are also some types of eye infections that are very contagious, which you want to treat as soon as possible.
Pinkeye, also known as conjunctivitis, occurs when the conjunctiva, the thin membrane lining the eyelids and the whites of the eyes, becomes inflamed or swollen. The white part of the eye often also becomes red, thus the name, “Pink Eye”.
Pinkeye is common among school-aged children because infectious pink-eye can be very contagious and spread quickly in classrooms, but it can occur at any age. The most common cause of pinkeye is a virus, although it can also be due to a bacterial infection or a non-infectious source such as allergies. One or both eyes may be affected.
The symptoms and treatment for pink eye depend upon the type of pink eye you have.
Typically, bacterial pink eye, which can be treated by an antibiotic eye drops or ointment, is associated with burning, itchy eyes accompanied by a thick, yellow pus-like discharge that makes the eyes difficult to open upon awakening. This must be treated by antibiotic according to the eye doctor's instructions for a minimum of 5 days, to prevent bacterial resistance. On occasion if the infection is not responding to topical medications, oral antibiotics may be used.
Viral pink eye, which can’t be treated by antibiotics, usually runs its course between 1 and 3 weeks. It typically causes teary eyes, swollen lymph nodes and a lighter more translucent mucus discharge. Sometimes the eye symptoms come in conjunction with an upper respiratory infection or a cold. Viral pink eye is extremely contagious.
Allergic pink eye is often characterized by redness, intense itching, and tears in both eyes and will usually respond to antihistamines, topical vasoconstrictors, or steroid eye drops (which should only be used with a doctor’s prescription). Eye rubbing can aggravate the itching and swelling, so try to use cool compresses and allergy medication as prescribed.
Preservative-free artificial tears may also provide some relief.
Any time pink eye symptoms do not improve after a few days, particularly if there is significant discharge, see your eye doctor. Make sure to clean the hands thoroughly after every encounter with the infected eye.
Styes are inflamed oil glands or hair follicles on the eyelid (usually along the lash line or under the lid). The inflammation is caused by bacteria and results in a swollen, red and painful bump. Often styes will eventually go away on their own, but if they occur often, a doctor might prescribe topical or oral antibiotics or sometimes even drain it though a minor surgical procedure.
Warm compresses can be used not only to ease the pressure and discomfort but also to open up the stye to facilitate healing. Styes are typically not contagious.
Most eye infections are not dangerous but they can be quite uncomfortable. If you have an eye infection make sure you take the proper steps to stay comfortable and prevent the infection from spreading to your loved ones.
Read more about our Eye Care Center's management of eye diseases, here.