Conjunctivitis, or pink eye as it is more commonly known, is a common winter time malady. Striking in its appearance and often feared by schools and daycares due to its contagious nature, it is nonetheless usually a benign and self-limiting condition.
The disease is an inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the lining of the inside of the eyelids. It folds over to coat the white of the eyeball as well. This lining is a protective layer for the eye. When it gets inflamed, the tiny capillaries dilate and the eye looks bloodshot.
Conjunctivitis is a general term that simply means the eye lining is inflamed. This can be due to any number of causes. Allergens in the spring and fall can lead to allergic conjunctivitis. Irritation can also be caused by a foreign body in the eye, such as a contact lens or a grain of sand. A simple dip in the pool in the summer can result in a chemical conjunctivitis from pool chemicals.
Infectious causes are due to viruses and bacteria. Viral conjunctivitis is much more common than bacterial conjunctivitis. These viruses are similar to the ones that cause colds in humans, mainly the adenovirus. Often the affected individual will have symptoms of conjunctivitis and have cold symptoms as well.
Conjunctivitis caused by a virus usually starts fairly suddenly. It will generally affect one eye, though the other eye can become infected by cross-contamination. The eye looks bloodshot and there may be tearing, burning, or itching. It is usually not painful and drainage from the eye is clear most of the time.
Conjunctivitis that is caused by bacteria will be associated with a thicker whitish or colored discharge that is fairly constant throughout the day. The eye may be matted shut upon awakening in the morning.
Pink eye is contracted through person to person contact. This is why we see it spread rapidly through schools and daycares due to the close contact. Touching the eyes or rubbing the eyes will increase the risk of spreading infections to others through contact. The most important preventative measure is washing your hands frequently during the day to prevent spread.
Like a cold, viral conjunctivitis will not respond to antibiotics and will need to be cured by the body’s natural defenses. It will go away in a few days without any specific treatment. On the other hand, bacterial conjunctivitis usually necessitates prescription antibiotic drops or ointment.
There are many other causes of redness of an eye, so it is generally advisable to see your doctor if you develop a red eye. This is especially true if you are experiencing pain in the eye with the redness. More serious conditions such as corneal damage, iritis, and glaucoma will need more advanced and specialized treatment.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.