What Is Conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye”, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers the inside of your eyelids and the sclera, the white part of your eye. The conjunctiva contains tiny blood vessels and produces the mucus that lubricates your eyes. If this membrane becomes inflamed, these tiny blood vessels swell making your eye appear red.
Although conjunctivitis can be caused by irritating substances such as allergens and chemicals such as chlorine, it is also caused by viruses, bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). These latter causes - viruses, bacteria and STDs - are infectious and can easily be transmitted to others. Infectious conjunctivitis accounts for about 70 percent of all cases.
Viral conjunctivitis is the most common form, and is produced by the same virus that causes the common cold. The symptoms will last for a couple of weeks, and then usually disappear on their own.
Bacterial infections, including staphylococcus and streptococcus, can generate significant amounts of pus. This type of conjunctivitis will normally require antibiotic treatment.
Who Is at Risk for Conjunctivitis?
Many people think of “pink eye” as an infection that affects only children. This is because conjunctivitis can often spread quickly in the close proximity of a classroom. However, this infection can impact anyone, regardless of age. It is important to know that conjunctivitis remains contagious for up to 14 days after the symptoms first appear.
If you have been exposed to the viral or bacterial infection, you are at risk for developing conjunctivitis. Both the herpes simplex ("cold sore" virus) and the herpes zoster (shingles) viruses can also lead to conjunctivitis.
Exposure to a particular allergen is a risk factor for allergic conjunctivitis. If you have a systemic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Crohn’s disease, you are at risk of developing non-infectious conjunctivitis. In addition, ocular trauma can result in conjunctivitis.
What Are the Symptoms of Conjunctivitis?
If you have infectious conjunctivitis, you could expect some or all of the following symptoms:
- Eye discomfort
- Swelling of the conjunctiva
- Increased tearing
- Excess mucus or pus
- Crusting on your eyelashes in the morning
- Foreign body sensation
Symptoms may start in one eye and spread to the other eye.
If you have allergic conjunctivitis, these are the symptoms you should be aware of:
- Intense itching of the eye
- Sneezing or runny nose
- Swollen eyelids
With respect to other causes of non-infectious conjunctivitis, the symptoms will depend on the cause. These may include redness in the eye and blurred vision.
How Is Conjunctivitis Detected?
Conjunctivitis is detected during a slit lamp examination by your doctor. In some cases, a small sample of cells may be tested to determine the nature of the bacterial infection.
How Is Conjunctivitis Treated?
Infectious conjunctivitis, whether caused by a virus or bacteria, can be easily spread. Therefore, practicing good hygiene is the key to prevent the spread. This would include the following:
- Avoid re-using tissues and towels to wipe your face and eyes
- Use separate towels, not shared with others
- Wash your hands frequently
- Keep your hands away from your eyes
- Avoid shaking hands
- Use a disinfectant on objects used by others, such as doorknobs, phones, counters, etc.
- Avoid swimming
For bacterial conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic drop or ointment.
If your conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, it will be necessary for nature to take its course, normally over a period of 2-3 weeks. If you have allergic conjunctivitis, cool compresses and the frequent use of artificial tears may help. However, you may also require anti-inflammatory and / or antihistamine medication.
For more severe symptoms of both viral and allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor may recommend a short-term treatment with a steroid eye drop. These steroid drops can help to reduce the inflammation. However, steroid use may elevate your intraocular pressure. Prolonged high intraocular pressure can damage your optic nerve.
Normally, conjunctivitis is easily treated. If your symptoms persist after treatment, you should see an ophthalmologist to rule out more serious eye problems that cause red eyes, problems which can lead to vision loss if left untreated.
Primary Eye Care Specialists at Kadrmas Eye Care New England
Meet our ophthalmologists and optometrists who specialize in primary eye care and general eye health: