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March 25, 2021

Pink Eye: A Common and Contagious Problem

ThedaCare physician discuss symptoms and care options for pink eye.

Thedacare physician discuss symptoms and care options

NEW LONDON, Wis. – It happens: You notice your eye turning red, and maybe it’s itchy or watering. Maybe it feels like you’ve have sand stuck in it, and you wonder what’s going on – is this pink eye, and how can you make it go away?

Pink eye, or acute conjunctivitis, is an infection or inflammation affecting the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers the white part of the eye. It’s a common eye problem that can impact both adults and children.

Patients experiencing pink eye normally have one of three types: bacterial, viral or allergic, explained Felix Jolly Odathil, MD, family medicine physician at ThedaCare Physicians-New London. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both highly contagious and are spread through directly or indirect contact with someone else who is infected.

“Bacterial conjunctivitis usually has thick green or yellow discharge from one eye,” he said. “That infection can spread to the second eye later, with no other systemic signs.”

Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand, usually manifests in watery, thin strands of mucous coming from both eyes. Patients may feel like their eyes are gritty or burning, and often report feeling like sand is in their eyes. Viral conjunctivitis may be a symptom of the onset of other diseases, including COVID-19. People can also experience pink eye along with colds and respiratory infections.

“Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious,” said Dr. Odathil. “Washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with others can help reduce the risk of contracting conjunctivitis.”

Felix Jolly Odathil, MD

Other ways to reduce your risk of contracting pink eye:

  • Avoid touching your eyes with your hands.
  • Don’t share eye cosmetics such as mascara or eyeliner, and don’t share towels and washcloths.
  • Regularly change your pillowcases and use clean washcloths and towels each day.
  • Do not wear contact lenses longer than recommended and clean them properly.

A third type, allergic conjunctivitis, is associated with congestion, sneezing, thin watery discharge from both eyes, and “allergic shiners” Dr. Odathil explained.

“It can be activated when the body produces histamines in reaction to irritants such as pollen, medicines or pet dander,” he said. “The inflammation from allergic conjunctivitis can cause itching, tearing, nasal discharge and sneezing as well. Allergy eye drops might provide some relief of the issues.” 

According to Dr. Odathil, antibiotics can help speed healing from bacterial conjunctivitis, but other types of pink eye don’t benefit. Most cases of pink eye will heal within a week or two. Over-the-counter eye drops, or artificial tears, can help with symptoms. Cold compresses also can help reduce redness and swelling.

“If you do notice symptoms of pink eye, call your provider to determine whether you should be seen,” he said. “Symptoms that indicate you may need medical attention include pain, a very red eye, discharge, crusty eyes upon waking, blurry or foggy vision, or sensitivity to light. If you were exposed to an irritant, such as a chemical splash, or your eye was recently scratched, you also should visit your provider.”

Newborns could experience pink eye because of a blocked tear duct and require a visit to their provider. Pink eye can lead to inflammation in the cornea in both adults and children that can adversely affect vision.

“People who have weakened immune systems should also see their provider if they have symptoms of pink eye,” Dr. Odathil said. “It’s important to receive proper treatment to avoid more serious eye problems.”

“Get Care Now”
ThedaCare is committed to protecting the health and safety of our neighbors. Delaying care can have serious consequences — particularly in the event of an emergency, like heart attack or stroke. Symptoms of these and other conditions should never be ignored or disregarded; ThedaCare teams are always prepared to provide lifesaving interventions while protecting patients from COVID-19. 

Preventive care is equally important to us. To help protect patients and providers alike, enhanced safety protocols are in place for all ThedaCare facilities. Anyone presenting respiratory symptoms is safely isolated and COVID-19 patients receive care in our dedicated respiratory hub clinics. These steps, along with increased cleaning and appropriate use of PPE, make it possible for us to provide the care you need for any condition.

ThedaCare is also doing everything we can to make care more accessible — whether or not you feel comfortable visiting one of our facilities. In addition to offering more appointments and enhancing safety for in-person care, we’ve also expanded our virtual health services, including video visits, eVisits and a free, online symptom checker for COVID-19 screening. Virtual care options are available for primary, specialty and even urgent care needs, and are a convenient way to connect with a provider from the comfort of your own home. For more information about care options and clinic safety protocols, visit thedacarecovid19.org. To make a health care appointment for yourself or a loved one, visit MyThedaCare.org or call your primary care provider. 

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health of the communities it serves in northeast and central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 18 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including seven hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their best lives through easy access to individualized care, supporting each person’s own health and wellbeing. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand unique needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care

Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.