Red and itchy eyes may or may not be a sign of conjunctivitis – sometimes called “pink eye.” Conjunctivitis is an inflammation or infection of the thin tissue that covers the white portion of the eye (the “conjunctiva”) and lining of the eyelids. There are three types of conjunctivitis: viral, bacterial, and allergic.
Viral conjunctivitis is extremely itchy. It is not treated with medication, because it will run a definite and limited course without drugs. Bacterial conjunctivitis, on the other hand, improves with medication and will respond to antibiotics after three to four days. A warm, wet cloth held up to the affected eye for a few minutes may ease discomfort.
Both of these types of conjunctivitis ordinarily cause discharge and both are contagious.
Allergic conjunctivitis is an immune response to a foreign substance in the eye, such as pollen, mold, or dust. Another possible trigger may be contact lens wear, which causes “giant papillary conjunctivitis.” We treat most of these cases by suppressing the immune response with antihistamines or, in more severe cases, topical steroids. We ease discomfort with the use of artificial tears (which lubricate the eye) or the application of a cool, wet cloth. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.
If your eyes are red and itchy, first see your eye doctor to determine whether or not you are contagious. Your doctor will tell you if you need a prescription and when you may return to work or school. Your doctor also will check to see whether your red eyes are a symptom of a more serious eye condition.