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Three Types of Pink Eye and How to Prevent it

As summer heats up, so do activities that put kids and adults in close quarters. We’re jumping into swimming pools, going to sleepovers and amusement parks, and getting out and about in crowds.

These circumstances make us more susceptible to picking up common eye infections, including a condition called conjunctivitis, better known as "pink eye."

“Symptoms of pink eye, or conjunctivitis, include redness of the eyes and discharge,” says Marielle Young, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist at John A. Moran Eye Center. “The eyes may burn or itch or feel irritated.”

About three million cases of pink eye are reported in the U.S. every year. According to the National Eye Institute, pink eye is one of the most common and treatable eye conditions in children and adults.

Here’s what Young wants patients to know about how pink eye spreads, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.

Types of Pink Eye

Pink eye may be caused by a virus, bacteria, or allergies.

  1. Viral pink eye is the most common type of conjunctivitis. Sparked by the same virus that causes runny noses and sore throats in people with the common cold, it is extremely contagious. It may cause burning, red eyes with a watery discharge.
  2. Bacterial pink eye, caused by a bacterial infection, is also highly contagious. It causes sore, red, sticky eyes.
  3. Allergic pink eye is not contagious. It comes from an allergic reaction to pollen, smoke, pool chlorine, animals, or other environmental elements. It can result in itchy, red, and watery eyes and may cause puffy eyelids.

Children are most likely to get viral or bacterial pink eye. That’s because they’re in close contact with others, such as in daycare centers and playgrounds, and are generally not great at practicing good hygiene.

Contagious pink eye commonly spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids—usually through hand-to-eye contact.

Prevent the spread of pink eye

Here are some steps parents can take to help prevent the spread of pink eye among children:

  • Encourage kids to wash their hands with soap and water throughout the day.
  • Don’t let them touch or rub their eyes.
  • Don’t share anything that touches the eyes, including eyeglasses and masks (medical and costume/dress-up).
  • Make sure they use their own towel, blanket, and pillowcase.
  • Wash any discharge from around the eyes several times a day.

In addition to the tips above, adults can limit the spread of viral and bacterial conjunctivitis among themselves and their families by following these steps:

  • Wash your hands immediately after touching an infected person's eyes, linens, or clothes. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don't use the same eye drop dispenser/bottle for infected and non-infected eyes—even on the same person.
  • Clean eyeglasses and sunglasses regularly.
  • Clean, store, and replace contact lenses as instructed by your eye health professional.
  • Don't share makeup, makeup brushes, contact lenses or containers, or eyeglasses.

When to see a doctor

Pink eye generally clears up on its own, but you can reduce the symptoms by putting a warm, damp washcloth over the eyes for a few minutes. Repeat this several times a day and use a clean washcloth each time.

However, see a doctor immediately if a person experiences these symptoms:

  • Vision change
  • Significant discomfort
  • Increased redness or discharge
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Fever

Pink eye and COVID-19 connection?

You may have heard that there’s a connection between COVID-19 and pink eye, but the American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that while the virus may cause pink eye in rare cases (experts believe it develops in just 1-3% of people with the disease), it doesn't appear to be a stand-alone symptom of COVID-19. So just because someone has pink eye, it doesn't mean they're infected with coronavirus.