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Sidelined by Pink Eye

Sidelined by Pink Eye

Discover the symptoms, causes and treatment for the eye infection that kept Olympics host Bob Costas from covering the first week of the winter games.

One of the more popular topics at this year’s Sochi Olympics had nothing to do with top athletes failing to medal or dropping out of competition -- it was longtime Olympic host Bob Costas’ eye infection, called pink eye, or conjunctivitis. Often thought to be an eye condition common in kids, adults can and do get it.

For Costas, the timing couldn’t have been worse. When he went on air at the beginning of the winter games the telltale redness around one eye was evident; before long the condition had spread to both, making it necessary for Costas to take time off from his anchoring duties.

To learn more about this condition and how it spreads, we turned to Rolando Toyos, MD, ophthalmologist and Medical Director and Founder of Toyos Clinic.

What is pink eye?
Pink eye is the common term for conjunctivitis, which is inflammation and swelling of the thin outer skin of the eye. The most common form of pink eye is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, much like a cold of the eye. Symptoms usually start within 24 hours of exposure. Allergies or some toxic irritant to the eye, like soap, may also cause it.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include redness around the eyes, itchiness, irritation, a burning sensation or feeling that there’s something in the eye. Eyelids may be swollen, there may be more tearing than usual and vision may be blurry. It can take up to two weeks for all symptoms to resolve.

How is pink eye spread?
Pink eye is very contagious, which is why we tend to quarantine a person who contracts it. When I see one patient with pink eye I’m going to see a few more before the week is up.

Conjunctivitis is spread much the same way colds are spread – and that’s why it’s thought to be more common in kids. The virus is on their hands and kids tend to touch everything, including their eyes.

If one eye has the virus, it can easily spread to the other. That’s why we encourage patients to wash their hands frequently, avoid touching their eyes and use paper towels to dry their face after washing so that towel can be disposed of.

How long is pink eye contagious?

How is pink eye treated?
If it’s a viral infection, there is no antibiotic you can take to make it go away. The most you can do is manage the symptoms by using artificial tears and cold compresses. Sometimes an allergy drop may relieve some of the redness and itching. We do not recommend over-the-counter drops intended to relieve everyday redness. They make the redness worse after you stop using the drops, and won’t give much relief. Since there is no immediate treatment, waiting out pink eye requires patience.

Should I see my doctor if I have pink eye symptoms?
A small percentage of people get bacterial pink eye, which is why you should see your doctor. Your doctor can take a swab to see if it’s viral or bacterial. If it’s bacterial an antibiotic will be prescribed, but 99% of the time a virus causes pink eye.

Can conjunctivitis cause any long-term vision problems?
It will not cause any decrease in vision unless you also have an infection of the cornea, which leaves scars. This condition is rare in patients with pink eye.

Medically reviewed in March 2019.

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