What is pink eye? Everything you need to know to avoid infection

Think of pinkeye as the eye's version of a common cold. Picture: Chris Curry/ Unsplash

Think of pinkeye as the eye's version of a common cold. Picture: Chris Curry/ Unsplash

Published Mar 19, 2024


The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health has issued a warning about a recent —outbreak of pinkeye, also known as conjunctivitis, in parts of the province.

Provincial Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane said at least 1,044 cases have been confirmed, with 1,040 of those cases from eThekwini and four from the Ugu district on the south coast.

However, Netcare Medicross is urging residents not to panic but to get informed on how to prevent the spread of this common but pesky eye condition.

What is pink eye?

Dr Nishen Gounder, a general practitioner at Netcare Medicross Malvern, is your go-to expert for understanding pinkeye.

"Think of pinkeye as the eye's version of a common cold," Dr Gounder explains. "It's an inflammation of a thin membrane called conjunctiva, the eye's front line of defence, which can get red and angry when irritated by infections, allergies, or environmental factors."

It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

“These can cause the delicate eye membrane to become red and inflamed, resulting in discomfort including itching, pain, swelling, fluid discharge and a scratchy or gritty feeling, as if there is sand in the eye,” he said.

What causes pink eyes?

“The cause of pink eye can be either viral or bacterial, both of which are highly contagious and easily spread in communities or schools through close contact and hand contamination.

“The public can play its part by helping to ensure pink eye does not spread further.”

Viral pink eye

Viral pink eye can be caused by various viruses, including the virus that causes the common cold symptoms. Pink eyes are very contagious.

It spreads through contact with infected secretions from the eye, and often the second eye becomes infected within 24 to 48 hours.

In a reassuring message to those experiencing eye discomfort, Dr Gounder offers a dose of good news. For the majority of individuals, common eye irritations such as redness, a scratchy feeling, or unexpected tears are often short-lived visitors.

These mild symptoms tend to clear up on their own, usually within a week or two, without the need for medical treatment, he explained.

"Though, don't be surprised if you find your eyelashes a bit crusty in the morning—that can linger a bit longer."

However, he advised a more cautious approach for contact lens wearers.

"If you're a contact lens user and notice any of these symptoms, it's crucial to consult your GP," he stressed. "It's important to rule out other serious issues, such as a corneal infection, which requires prompt attention."

Bacterial pink eye

“While not as contagious as viral conjunctivitis, bacterial conjunctivitis is also highly contagious. but the symptoms differ from those of viral infection, with a yellow, white or green discharge common throughout the day.

“In the morning, one will wake with the eye being ‘stuck shut’ with a crust of dried discharge. An antibiotic in the form of drops or ointment, as prescribed by a GP, is needed to treat this condition effectively.”

Other serious symptoms that need immediate medical attention

• Pain and tenderness of the eye

• Vision disturbances

• Sensitivity to light or difficulty keeping the eye(s) open

• Other symptoms such as severe headache with nausea

Top 10 tips for preventing and treating pink eye

1. If you suspect you or your child may have pink eye, visit your general practitioner and seek their guidance on treating the condition.

2. Make sure your doctor provides a sick note while you wait for the pink eye discharge to stop, usually after 24 hours of antibacterial treatment.

3. To protect yourself against pink eye infection, be strict in general hygiene practices. Remember that handwashing with soap or alcohol-based sanitising is an effective way to keep you and your loved ones safe from pink eye and many other infectious illnesses.

4. Where possible, avoid contact with people who have pink eye. Avoid physical contact, such as shaking hands, sharing pens, phones, touch screens, and makeup.

5. If you’re exposed to someone with pink eye, wash your hands often with soap and water and change your bed linen daily. Don’t share facecloths, towels, or pillows.

6. Stop using contact lenses as soon as you suspect you may have pink eye.

7. Seek medical advice immediately if you experience severe pain, a change in your vision, any sign of pus or if you notice intense redness in your eyes.

8. Immunocompromised patients, such as those on cancer treatment or biological agents and those living with HIV and diabetes, should seek advice from their treating doctor as early as possible.

9. If you are diagnosed with pink eye, wash your hands often and do your best to prevent infecting those around you at home.

10. It’s important that babies and young children see a doctor as soon as their caregiver notices symptoms of the condition.