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Do I Have Pink Eye?

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Do I Have Pink Eye?

Oct 02, 2018

You may think you know what to look for in pink eye: red itchy eyes, goopy discharge, swelling. But are you sure? Dr. Troy Madsen explains how pink eye can be very difficult to diagnose and that even those telltale symptoms could be a sign of something as simple as allergies. We cover the signs you should be looking for and the treatment options if you think you or your child may have pink eye.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You think you or maybe your kids have pinkeye. How will you know for sure and what should you do about it? We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: This is From the Front Lines with emergency room Dr. Troy Madsen on The Scope.

Interviewer: Dr. Troy Madsen is an emergency room physician at University of Utah Health Care. Pinkeye. Let's talk about how you would diagnose a case of pinkeye and then what you would do about it because I hear it could be kind of difficult to diagnose like a school nurse, for example, might not be able to tell the difference from allergies or not. Is that the case?

Dr. Madsen: That is the case. And that's always what I'm thinking in my mind. So the most common thing we have is someone comes in and they say, "My eye hurts" or "My eyes hurt". I look at their eyes, they're red. So a couple of questions I ask and I say, "First of all, did this start in both eyes or did it start in one eye and spread to the other?"

If it starts in one eye, that's more likely what we would call pinkeye. And pinkeye is a bacterial infection often. Sometimes it's a viral infection but it's really tough to tease out which are bacterial and which are viral. Of course the ones we worry more about are the bacterial infections because we're going to treat those with antibiotic drops, but you figure it's not going to necessarily start in both eyes at the same time. It kind of start somewhere. It's going to start in one eye and then maybe you're rubbing that eye and then it spreads over to the other eye. So typically with pinkeye, that's the case.

Interviewer: Okay, so one eye hurts before the other generally.

Dr. Madsen: Exactly.

Interviewer: Red like bloodshot red, what's that red look like?

Dr. Madsen: So the red . . . Yes, that's tough to distinguish from allergies.

Interviewer: There's nothing really unique about it, huh?

Dr. Madsen: Not particularly. It can look a lot like allergies where just if you've ever had like allergies, just seasonal allergies, your eyes are bloodshot, they hurt, they itch, pinkeye looks very similar. With pinkeye though, we often see more discharge or more drainage from the eye. This kind of stuff that's not so much, just your eyes watering, which you have with allergies, but stuff that's kind of a little more whitish in color that looks more like you would imagine an infection looks.

So someone who says they wake up and my eyes are like matted shut. Again, allergies, we can sometimes see that but it's usually more with pinkeye. They have to pry their eye open or their kids' eye or they use like a washcloth and hold it on there to kind of loosen that up and pry it open. That's pretty typically with pinkeye and that helps me out to make that diagnosis.

Interviewer: All right. So then what does treatment look like? You said if it's a bacterial cause, then you would use antibiotic drops. It's hard to tell though, so you just . . .

Dr. Madsen: It is.

Interviewer: You just use antibiotic drops across the board or . . .?

Dr. Madsen: Typically yes, and you don't want to over-treat with antibiotics, but in practical terms, if I were to try and get a culture of the eye, send that to the lab, it takes couple days to get the result. It's not really that useful. So even though it might be viral, it's often bacterial so we treat with antibiotic drops. It means using drops several times a day or often for a week just make sure this clears up. Most people are going to have improvement in their symptoms after two or three days.

Interviewer: What if it's viral though and you're using the drops, they're not doing anything, will it just get better on it's own or . . .?

Dr. Madsen: It will.

Interviewer: Really?

Dr. Madsen: It will. Yes, with the viral it will just get better on its own and the antibiotic drops probably aren't going to do a whole lot for it but, again, it's hard to say because maybe after two or three days, you're feeling better and it could be that the virus got better on its own or maybe the drops treated the bacteria. But it's not the sort of thing, again, where a culture would be that helpful because it's going to take two or three days to get the results back. If it's bacterial, it could get significantly worse and really progressing, cause some issues wherein you can get infections around the eye or extending behind the eye as well.

Interviewer: And untreated, could it cause long term problems if you didn't go into anything about it or would it eventually just clear up regardless?

Dr. Madsen: It could clear up but the concern with the bacterial infections would be something that progresses, again, to where it spreads around the eye.

Interviewer: Infects the rest of, yes, other parts of your eye.

Dr. Madsen: Exactly. And so that's why even though in my mind I say, "Okay, this could be a viral infection," I'm also saying, "I want to treat this as likely a bacterial infection because the possibilities with the bacterial infection could be pretty significant." And I don't necessarily want to tell this person, "Wait two or three days and then come back when you have a significant infection around your eye that might require even something like IV antibiotics or hospital admission," if it got to that point and got that serious.

Interviewer: And don't need to go to an emergency room for this sort of thing. Urgent Care or a primary care provider probably would be able to take care of it.

Dr. Madsen: Absolutely.

Interviewer: And you could . . . even if you have to wait a day?

Dr. Madsen: Yes. Even if you had to wait a day, you're probably okay. I think the challenge for most parents is if their kid gets pinkeye, they're not going to let the kid come to school because it is highly contagious. You've got to make sure you're washing your hands, your kid's washing their hands. Kids get this at school, they pass it to other kids. So a parent's probably not going to want to wait a day to get in to see their primary care doctor. They'll go to an Urgent Care. If you have to come to the ER, you come to the ER. Either way, I'm guessing most parents want to get that treated and get their kid back to school and get them out of the house as soon as they can.

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updated: October 2, 2018
originally published: August 19, 2016