The conjunctiva is a membrane on the inside of the eyelid. Most people would never even realize it was there but for itchiness, eye watering, and light sensitivity when it gets inflamed. Called conjunctivitis—or pinkeye, for the pinkish tinge that develops on the cornea—this inflammation may be caused by viruses, bacteria, or an allergic reaction. When it’s caused by viruses or bacterial infection, pinkeye is contagious, and bacterial conjunctivitis can actually damage the eye if left untreated. Bacterial conjunctivitis is also the most noticeable form, causing a greenish-yellow discharge that tends to glue the eye shut overnight.
Both the viral and bacterial types of conjunctivitis pass easily from person to person. That’s why it’s important for someone who has pinkeye to take steps to avoid spreading the condition. That means wiping down surfaces when possible and maintaining good hygiene techniques. Pinkeye is highly contagious for up to three weeks, so developing and maintaining habits is important. Someone with pinkeye should also avoid touching or rubbing their eyes, or at the very least, use hand sanitizer afterward. Something disposable, such as paper towels or cotton balls, should be used for compresses or applying topical treatments.
Compresses are the best way to deal with conjunctivitis—for viral or allergic conjunctivitis, the only way. Antibiotics can be given, topically or as drops, for the bacterial variety, but when a virus is responsible there’s usually nothing to do except wait it out, which takes about two or three weeks. To help alleviate some of the discomfort, wet a paper towel with cool but not cold water, wring it out and place it on the eyes. This should not be reused, even by the same person. Teabags can also be used as compresses, particularly green tea and chamomile. The teabags should be wettened but not dripping, and should be thrown away after.
When conjunctivitis is an allergic reaction, it isn’t contagious but it also isn’t going to go away as long as exposure to the allergen continues. Pinkeye can be a reaction to dust, dander, pollen, or any other sort of airborne particle. Allergy treatments such as antihistamines can help with this. Another option when it’s an allergic reaction is anti-inflammatory rugs such as decongestants or in severe cases, steroids. Avoiding the allergen, when possible, also helps.