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Ick! Pink Eye

A Closer Look at Conjunctivitis

A Closer Look at Conjunctivitis

Your eyes feel gritty and itchy. They’ve been tearing all day. Bright lights hurt. They look red and swollen, and there may be a crusty yellow discharge when you wake up in the morning. Wipe it away, and it’s back within the hour. Chances are pretty good you’re dealing with pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis.

Pink eye is an irritation or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin protective covering on the inside of the eyelids and on the white part of the front of the eye, or sclera. Its main job is to help keep the eye moist by producing tears, and by releasing a slick, lubricating mucus.

The conjunctiva also serves as a monitor for infection, including [those caused by] viruses and bacteria. It’s usually very effective in alerting the immune system if invaders enter the eye, but infections are still very common, especially in children.

There are several possible causes of pink eye, but the two most common are upper respiratory viruses and allergies. Bacteria agents or other less common chemical or environmental exposures can also cause conjunctivitis.

Viral conjunctivitis is caused by the common cold virus and is the most contagious. This means, as the cold season goes, so goes pink eye. The virus particles enter the air when an infected person sneezes and coughs. These particles are suspended in the air and can rest on the mucus membranes of the body, including the conjunctiva of the eye. Interestingly, you can also contract viral conjunctivitis from yourself if you have a cold. Your infected nose and throat can allow the virus to spread upward through your nose, into your tear ducts, and to the conjunctiva. To add insult to injury, one eye can effectively catch conjunctivitis from the other – a really good reason to help kids keep their hands away from their faces, especially when they’re sick.

Allergic conjunctivitis is fairly common especially in the fall or spring, but can occur at any time during the year in people with other common allergies, like dust or pet Dander for example. When the allergen comes in contact with the eye, conjunctivitis can result.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by either a staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria, although other bacteria agents may sometimes be involved. Many of us play permanent host to these bacteria – usually without showing signs of illness – but if the bacteria enters the eye by rubbing or using contaminated cosmetics, for example, conjunctivitis can occur.

The treatment will depend on the cause. When viral pink eye is diagnosed, the goal is to make you or your child more comfortable, since antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Like a cold, viral pink eye has to run its course, but cool or warm compresses or artificial tears may help alleviate the discomfort.

Allergic pink eye is best treated by trying to avoid the allergens. Like in viral pink eye, cool compresses or artificial tears can help make the eye feel better, and antihistamines may be helpful. You and your doctor can come up with the treatment plan that will be the best for you or your young patient.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic eye drops or creams, which typically results in a fairly quick response – usually within several days. However, as with any course of antibiotics, you must finish the entire prescription, even if your symptoms have gone away.

If you are uncomfortable about the severity of your conjunctivitis, if your baby develops pink eye, or if you have had an accident with a strong chemical splashing into the eyes, see a doctor immediately.

There are some common sense things you can do in any case of conjunctivitis – no matter its origin. Don’t touch or rub the infected eye; wash hands frequently; avoid makeup; don’t wear your contact lenses; and make sure you are using clean pillowcases, towels and washcloths.

And furthermore, if your child has viral or bacterial pink eye, keep him or her home from school until he is better. Set those same rules for yourself concerning work.

Important tips for you and your kids:

Use good hygiene – wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your eyes, especially if you’ve been exposed to someone with a cold.

Keep your contact lenses, lens cases, and eyeglasses clean.

Throw away contact lenses you’ve worn while infected.

Don’t share eye makeup, and if you’ve used makeup while you’ve had conjunctivitis, throw it out – it could be contaminated.

Don’t share unwashed towels and washcloths.

Don’t use eye drops or artificial tears on uninfected eyes if the same bottle has been used on infected eyes.

Try to avoid allergens that you know cause eye irritation and inflammation.

Natario Couser, MD, is an opthalmologist. He sees patients at Virginia Pediatric Ophthalmology Specialists (VPOS) at MEDARVA at Stony Point Surgery Center. In addition, Dr. Couser teaches pediatric residents at VCU School of Medicine.
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