The conjunctiva is the thin mucous membrane lining over the white portion of the eye ball (sclera) and the inner aspect of the eyelids. Inflammation of this normally clear tissue results in redness, swelling and increased secretion of mucous, and can be caused by a number of conditions:
Any variety of cold viruses can cause a red, mucous-filled eye. In the same way that the offending virus may cause nasal congestion, a sore throat and/or cough, the conjunctiva becomes irritated and makes your eye congested as well. If you have cold symptoms accompanying your pink eye then it is almost certainly due to a virus and will resolve without any antibiotic drops.
A bacterial eye infection is a more serious matter and is often preceded by overuse of contact lenses, sometimes leading to a corneal ulceration. There is often pain and any discharge may be thicker and gray-yellow in color. This requires a prescription for antibiotic drops and immediate attention from an eye doctor.
Seasonal or environmental allergies to pollen, pet dander, dust mites or other allergens are the most common cause of conjunctivitis, and often accompanies typical allergic symptoms such as a stuffy nose, scratchy throat or sneezing. Over-the-counter antihistamine tablets and drops may effectively reduce or relieve these symptoms, which are usually chronic and recurrent in nature.
Any substance that splashes or is accidentally rubbed into the eyes may cause irritation and conjunctivitis. This may include hand sanitizer residue or moisturizing hand creams that inadvertently rub off of your fingers into your eyes. Washing out any known or suspected substances is the first line of treatment. Any persistent irritation after a known exposure, or involvement of a caustic substance (acid, etc.) should be cared for as soon as possible in a hospital ER or ophthalmologist’s office.
As we age, the eyes often secrete fewer tears that may result in redness due to drying of the conjunctiva. There are a number of artificial tears and lubricating drops for daily use to prevent development of redness from dry eyes.
General care for any source of pink eye may include warm water to wash away any mucous or crusting, and cool compresses to relieve itching or burning. Over-the-counter drops may be helpful in getting relief from allergies or chemical conjunctivitis, but are of no value in treating infections.
The same viruses that cause colds are similarly contagious by contact or via respiratory inhalation and can spread pink eye from person to person. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, don’t shakes hands and wipe down surfaces with a disinfectant. As long as you have symptoms, you are likely contagious.
See an ophthalmologist
Regardless of the source of your pink eye, always seek immediate attention from an ophthalmologist if you have eye pain, a foreign body sensation or if your vision is compromised.