Some people (usually doctors and nurses) will call it ‘conjunctivitis’ - but you probably just call it pinkeye. And chances are… you’ve probably had it before. So you know what a pain and inconvenience it can be! Let’s talk a little about what pinkeye is, and how you can avoid it going forward. 

Crazy Fact: Three million school days in the US are missed as a result of pinkeye… every year.

What is it? Well, the dictionary is going to tell you that it’s redness and swelling of the conjunctiva (hence the name conjunctivitis), which is mucous membrane lining the eyelid and surface of the eye. While this membrane is ordinarily clear, when it gets irritated or infected, it becomes red and swollen.

Good news/bad news is that it’s pretty common. Just know that if you ever get pinkeye, you’re not the first and definitely won’t be the last. And depending on how full you social calendar is, additional good news is that it goes away in 7 to 10 days with no treatment.

Typical causes of pinkeye are:

  1. Infections from viruses or bacteria
  2. Dry eyes (wind/sun, or lack of crying)
  3. Chemicals, fumes, or smoke
  4. Allergies

Above are the more textbook causes of pinkeye. In the real world, the causes are:

  1. Direct contact with an infected individual's secretions, usually through hand-to-eye contact;
  2. Spread of the infection from bacteria living in the person's own nose/sinus; and
  3. Not cleaning contact lenses properly and using poorly fitting contact lenses or decorative contacts.

When it comes to the viral contagion of pinkeye, typically this can be prevented through good hygiene practices such as washing your hands consistently and not handling items that someone with pinkeye has been handling.

While generally pinkeye is a manageable virus without medical treatment, it can be a little more serious for people who only have vision in one eye, wear contact lenses, or if the infected individual’s immune system has difficulty fighting off infections.

Usually contact lens wearers will have to switch to glasses until the condition has passed.

When can you go back to work/school?

If the pinkeye is viral, you can return to work/school when symptoms start to improve in the 3 to 5 day range. If it’s bacterial (which has many of the same symptoms), then an antibiotic can be administered with improvement showing 2 to 4 days after.

What to do when my baby gets pinkeye.

Parents are typically sensitive and likely to react quickly when it comes to their newborns. Pinkeye does occur in newborn children, and most of the time it’s just an irritation that will go away. However, it is recommended that the child be taken to a physician to just be sure.

Home ‘Remedies’.

Cold compresses applied to closed eyelids generally relieve much of the discomfort. (Pro tip: if the pink eye is only in one eye, don’t use the same cloth on both eyes.) Also, over-the-counter lubricating eyedrops can also provide some relief.

In the end, pinkeye is very likely going to be more of an inconvenience than anything else. Many people will opt to try and hide it with sunglasses or a hat, but generally the best thing to do is stay away from others for a few days and then practice extra-diligent hygiene as you recover.