Pink eye has always been a widely overused term for ocular conjunctivitis. Unfortunately, some red eyes are much more serious than simple “pink eye,” and I can recall many times when this simple condition wasn’t so simple.
Red eyes are usually caused by allergy, bacterial infection or viral infection. Of course, allergic conjunctivitis is the most common, especially in this part of the state where Grayson County gets more than its fair share.
True “pink eye” is an adenoviral infection that is highly contagious and causes significant discomfort. It is actually not as common as you would think, but due to its contagious nature, one case usually leads to many. If the redness is truly allergic, it is almost always in both eyes. Bacterial and viral infections may or may not be in both eyes, but these are easily differentiated by an eye doctor due to their common signs.
The lining of the eye, the conjunctiva, is a thin, clear membrane of skin-like tissue that provides nutrients and protection to the eye. It has blood vessels coursing through it, and since it is clear with a white background (sclera) any irritation to this membrane is obviously noticeable. This membrane can also become inflamed and appear to have bumps which gives the sensation of something being stuck in the eye. Interestingly, sometimes people think they have pink eye when actually they do have a foreign body, like metal or wood, stuck in the eye.
Corneal ulcers from contact lens overwear or contact lens-related infections can also be misinterpreted as pink eye. These are usually in just one eye, and the pain can be unbearable. Viruses that cause shingles and cold sores can invade the eye, leading to severe problems if untreated. In other situations, acute glaucoma attacks can cause redness, but this severe condition can lead to rapid vision loss if untreated.
The take-home point for red eyes is to see an optometrist, so proper diagnosis and treatment can be started immediately. Sometimes what seems to be a simple “pink” eye can be much more.