Red eye

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 7, 2015
StartSymptomsRed eye

Have you ever looked in the mirror to be horrified at one or both of your eyes appearing reddish? Well, when this happens, there is no reason to panic. When this occurs, a better understanding of this condition, its causes, and treatment is what you need.


Definition & Facts

When the blood vessels on the surface of your eye expand, the result is red eye which is commonly called “Pinkeye” by many people. This is a common problem for many people, and it can occur in one or both of your eyes. Inflammation caused by an infection or irritation is usually the cause.

The membrane that covers the white of your eye and lines your eyelid, the conjunctiva, has become inflamed. This condition known as conjunctivitis is basically the inflammation of the conjunctiva. Although it is irritating, it is very rare for this condition to affect your vision. Since it can be contagious, an early diagnosis as well as treatment is essential to limiting its spread.

Besides the redness of one or both eyes, the following symptoms indicate the presence of conjunctivitis:

  • Itchiness
  • Tearing
  • Gritty feeling
  • Discharge during the night that forms a crust and prevents you from opening your eye or eyes in the morning


Either a viral or bacterial infection is often the cause of pinkeye also known as conjunctivitis. However, an allergy can also be the cause. When pink eye is caused by a virus, there is often a clear discharge or a pus and mucous discharge. When bacteria is the cause, the pus and mucous discharge is thicker. With children, bacteria is more commonly the cause of conjunctivitis.

When to see a doctor

If you notice any symptoms of pinkeye, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. This is because pink eye is highly contagious and can remain contagious from the start of symptoms and for as long as two weeks after the start of the symptoms. In order to protect people around you daily from also developing pinkeye, it is important for you to receive both diagnosis and treatment.

Contact lenses should not be worn as long as your symptoms exist. You should make an appointment with your eye doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within 12 to 24 hours. This is because your contact lens use may have caused a serious eye infection.

You should also see your doctor because eye redness can also be the result of other serious eye conditions. Pain, blurred vision or light sensitivity are symptoms indicating you should seek urgent care.

Treatment & Therapy

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Although about half of the cases of bacterial conjunctivitis cases clear up within one to two weeks without treatment, antibiotics prescribed by your doctor will speed up the healing. He or she may either prescribe antibiotic ointment or eye drops. It is possible that your will experience blurred vision for up to twenty minutes after you apply the ointment. It is important that you follow all instructions your doctor recommends and that you use the antibiotics for as long as your doctor has prescribed. If you do so, you will prevent your infection from recurring.
  • Viral conjunctivitis: Similar to other types of viruses, your doctor most likely will not prescribe any treatment. However, if the herpes simplex virus is the cause of your pink eye, an antiviral medication may be prescribed by your doctor. This type of conjunctivitis usually begins in one eye but within a few days will also infect the other eye. The virus usually runs its course over a period of one to two weeks, and your symptoms should then be clear.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: There are many different eye drops that doctors prescribe for allergic conjunctivitis such as:
1. A combination of mast cell stabilizers and antihistamines that will help to control the allergic reactions
2. Steroids, decongestants and anti-inflammatory eye drops that will help to control the inflammation.

Home Remedies

  • Eye Drops: Symptoms may be relieved with the use of over-the-counter eye drops known as artificial tears. Eye drops that contain antihistamines or other medications are especially helpful in cases of allergic conjunctivitis. However, Clear Eyes® and Visine® eye drops should be avoided since they may work only for a while and the redness then returns.
  • Compress: Applying a compress to your eyes can sooth the discomfort of pinkeye. You can make a compress by soaking a clean and lint-free cloth in water and then wringing it out. You should apply it gently to the affected eye’s lid a few minutes several times a day. A cool water compress usually will be the most soothing. However, if you prefer a warm compress, it will also be soothing. It is important to note that you should be careful to only touch the affected eye with the cloth and if the other eye is not affected you should not touch it with the cloth. You don’t want to risk infecting the clear eye.
  • Do not wear contact lenses: All wearers of contact lenses should stop wearing them until your eyes are clear. If you use disposable contacts, you should ask your doctor whether you must throw them away. Non-disposable lenses must be cleaned thoroughly before you use them again.
  • Tips for Allergic Conjunctivitis:
1. Avoid what causes your symptoms.
2. Your clothes should be washed frequently.
3. Shower or bathe every night before bedtime.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Good hygiene is essential to avoiding the spread of pinkeye. Follow these tips to protect others:

  • Avoid touching your eyes with your hands.
  • Keep your hands clean by washing them often.
  • Only use freshly washed towels and washcloths and do not reuse them. Other family members should not use them as well.
  • Pillowcases should be changed daily and often.
  • Swimming in a swimming pool should be avoided.
  • Mascara and other eye cosmetics should be discarded.
  • Eye cosmetics and items used for eye care should never be used by anyone else.
  • Always use the antibiotics for the entire prescribed period.

The symptoms of pink eye usually resolve within three to seven days. However, viral conjunctivitis of children remains contagious for a week or longer. Children should not return to school until both the redness and discharge are no longer present.

A child with bacterial conjunctivitis should not attend school until the treatment has begun. Usually, at least 24 hours after the start of the treatment is required by schools and facilities for child care before the child returns to the school or child care facility. It is a good idea to check with your doctor as to when your child should return to school or child care.

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