There are many potential causes for red eyes or “pink eye” as it is more commonly known. Some are merely bothersome or cosmetically annoying, while others can be painful and pose a significant risk to ocular health. From simple causes like dryness, to more serious conditions like ocular inflammation or infection, the best way to diagnose and treat a red eye is to visit your eye doctor. Below are some of the many potential causes of red eyes.
Conjunctivitis: What is “Pink Eye?”
There are many misconceptions around the term “pink eye.” In general, this is the term used for conjunctivitis, which is inflammation of the clear layer that covers the white portion of the eye. There are three main types of conjunctivitis: viral, allergic, or bacterial. Viral conjunctivitis is what is traditionally thought of as “pink eye” – a highly contagious viral infection of the eye. Viral conjunctivitis causes watery and irritated red eyes, and there is usually a fair amount of greenish discharge. No “cure” exists for viral conjunctivitis, but the virus typically runs its course in 7-14 days and symptoms will disappear. Viral pink eye can be easily spread by hand-to-eye contact, so caution should be taken if you have this condition. Allergic conjunctivitis, as the name suggests, is caused by an allergic hypersensitivity in the ocular tissue. This form of conjunctivitis is not contagious, but causes very itchy and uncomfortable eyes that can be easily treated with anti-allergy eye drops. Bacterial conjunctivitis, which is caused by a bacterial infection, is very rare in adults, but can be very serious if left untreated. Bacterial conjunctivitis causes red eyes that are usually accompanied by thick, white, mucous-like discharge. In most cases of bacterial pink eye, oral antibiotics are required to clear the infection.
Dry Eye Disease
Redness is commonly a symptom of dry eye disease. If this is the case, the redness will be accompanied by irritation, grittiness, foreign body sensation, or watery eyes. Treating dry eye disease with one of the many treatment options, such as lubricating artificial tears, medicated eye drops, punctal plugs, or Meibomian gland expression, can help reduce redness associated with dry eyes, as well as relieve other symptoms associated with dry eyes. If dryness is causing your red eyes, your doctor can give you special treatment recommendations.
Infections or Inflammation and Red Eyes
Ocular infections and inflammation are more serious causes of red eyes that require prompt medical attention. Infections, like corneal ulcers, can cause the eye to become very red and painful and have the potential to adversely affect vision. Most of the time, these infections are associated with contact lens wear or ocular injuries, although sometimes infections can occur without either of these factors. These types of infections must be immediately treated with medicated eye drops before further complications occur.
When inflammation occurs inside the eye, it can also cause redness. Ocular inflammation, also known as uveitis or iritis, can occur in one or both eyes. Besides redness, other symptoms of ocular inflammation include pain and soreness, light sensitivity, and occasionally blurred vision. Uveitis has the potential to be very harming to the eye and should be treated by an eye care professional. Many cases of uveitis are associated with other inflammation throughout the body from systemic conditions such as lupus, sarcoidosis, or rheumatoid arthritis. If ocular inflammation is recurrent and severe, it can be an indication that an underlying condition is the root cause.
If you have a red eye, the best course of action is to visit your optometrist for evaluation. Your eye doctor can properly diagnose and treat whatever is causing the redness.