What is Pink Eye and how do you stop it spreading?


What the rest of the English-speaking world calls “Pink Eye,” Nigerians call “Apollo.” Pink Eye or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the transparent membrane covering the whites of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. According to urban legend, there was an increase in the occurrence of pink eye in Nigeria in 1969 after America’s Apollo 11 space shuttle landed a man on the moon. In Nigeria, we blame the government for everything and apparently we will not spare even the U.S. government.

What causes Pink Eye and how does it spread?

Not all pink eye is due to an infection. Infectious agents such bacteria or viruses can cause Pink Eye. It can also be a reaction to allergies or things that irritate the eye such as chemicals, air pollution or a foreign object in the eye. The most common cause of pink eye though is a viral infection.

Only Pink Eye due to bacteria or viruses is contagious, spreading easily from person to person. It spreads by direct or indirect contact with pus, mucus or tears from the eye of an infected person. One or both eyes may be affected. Pink Eye due to allergies, irritants, pollution, or foreign objects is not contagious.

Infectious Pink Eye, though highly contagious, is a mild illness that lasts for about 7 to 14 days but can take up to three weeks to resolve.

How do you know if you have a contagious Pink Eye?

Many of the symptoms of conjunctivitis (pink eye) are similar regardless of cause. A doctor can confirm if your pink eye is contagious only by testing the fluid discharge from the eye.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis (pink eye) can include:

  • Redness of one or both eyes
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Eye makes more tears than usual
  • Feeling like a foreign object or sand is in the eye
  • Itching, irritation, or burning sensation
  • Eye discharge (pus or mucus)
  • Dried pus or mucus on eyelids or lashes, especially in the morning

Closeup, cropped portrait, young woman, girl applying eyedroppers, isolated white background. Face expression. Eye health care concept

Should you treat Pink Eye?

You don’t need to treat conjunctivitis with antibiotic eye drops. Since most pink eye is viral, antibiotics will not work anyway. Using them may cause problems by creating antibiotic resistance so that antibiotics fail to work when you really need them. Researchers in Ibadan, Nigeria found an alarming level of antibiotic resistance in bacteria collected from patients with bacterial Pink Eye.

You’re better off letting the viral infection run its course and clear up naturally. Even bacterial pink eye will eventually get better. There are simple home remedies that can make you more comfortable and less contagious during the process.

Conjunctivitis caused by herpes virus, chickenpox virus or Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria (trachoma) can cause reduced vision and even blindness as a result of scars that form in the cornea of the eye. You must treat these types of pink eye to prevent complications. Trachoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. It often occurs in conditions of extreme poverty and poor hygiene.

Use Antihistamine eye drops for allergic pink eye. They’re available at your local pharmacy.

Home Remedies for Pink Eye

  1. Use moist cotton wool balls to clean mucus or pus from your eye 3 to 4 times a day. Use different cotton balls for each eye.
  2. Apply a cold or warm compress to your eye – soak a clean cloth or a few cotton wool balls in cold or warm water, squeeze out the water and apply gently to your eye. Use different cotton balls for each eye.
  3. Rinse your eye 3 to 4 times daily with salt water (add half teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces of boiled water and allow to cool to room temperature)

When should you go to the doctor?

You should go to the hospital if you have these additional symptoms:

  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve when you wipe the discharge from your eye
  • Intense redness of the eye
  • Symptoms that worsen or don’t improve
  • A weak immune system from HIV infection, cancer treatment, or other medical conditions or treatments

Newborns with eye discharge or redness should see a doctor immediately.

Key steps for prevention

Conjunctivitis is very contagious. It can sweep through your home, school, daycare or workplace within days. You can prevent it from spreading if you have it or protect yourself and family from getting it by taking simple measures:

  • Don’t touch your eyes with your hands
  • Wash your hands or your child’s hands often
  • Use a clean towel daily
  • Don’t share towels
  • Change your pillowcases daily.
  • Throw away your eye cosmetics – mascara, eyeliner
  • Don’t share eye cosmetics or personal eye-care items

The simplest way to prevent spreading pink eye is to stay home — or keep your child at home — until the eye discharge has stopped.

As is the case with the common cold, it’s often not practical for you to stay home until your Pink Eye is better. Return to work or school after about 24 – 48 hours but practice good hygiene for your sake and others.