More commonly referred to as pinkeye in North America, conjunctivitis occurs when the conjunctiva becomes inflamed. It is generally due to a viral infection, but there are other causes, as well. Some variations of this condition are extremely contagious and spread so fast that many schools have a strict policy that infected children must stay home. Conjunctivitis is one of the most commonly diagnosed eye conditions in both children and adults. However, with prompt and proper treatment long-term vision is rarely compromised.
What is the Conjunctiva?
To become educated on the condition it is helpful to have a solid understanding of the area that is affected. The conjunctiva covers the sclera, or white part of your eye, and lines the inside of your eyelids. Its function is to produce tears and mucus to keep the eye lubricated. It also prevents microbes from entering the eye and it contributes to immune surveillance.
Most causes of pinkeye fall under one of three categories, including:
- Infectious Conjunctivitis - The vast majority of cases are resulted from a viral infection known as adenovirus. This virus is traditionally associated with the common cold and respiratory diseases, and can spread quite quickly. Bacterial infections are also included in this category. The most common acute bacterial conjunctivitis causes include Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Both variations of infectious conjunctivitis are traditionally passed through direct contact, but the condition can spread through contaminated water and objects, as well.
- Allergic Conjunctivitis - Individuals who suffer from seasonal allergies are prone to this variation of pinkeye. It occurs as a result of the eyes being irritated through exposure to an allergen. Common triggers include animal dander, dust mites, grass, pollen, and ragweed.
- Irritant Conjunctivitis - This category is made up of environmental elements known to cause eye irritation. A few common ones include cigarette smoke, air pollution, swimming pool chlorine, cosmetics, personal hygiene products, hairspray, cleaning products, and vehicle exhaust.
Since there are so many causes of pinkeye, symptoms can vary significantly from one person to the next. You may experience one or more of the following:
- Burning, itching, grittiness, and general pain in one or both eyes
- Whites of one or both eyes appear to be pink or red
- One or both eyes may produce pus or a watery discharge
- Waking up with crusty eyelids from dried discharge
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Blurred vision
- Swelling of the eyelids
The American Optometric Association states that reliable statistics regarding this condition are not available. This is because not every affected individual goes to a doctor to be diagnosed. If you are experiencing one or more of the above symptoms you should speak with your family doctor or optometrist. Only a qualified medical professional can provide a diagnosis.
A thorough exam is the first step in diagnosing the condition. You will be asked about symptoms, and your eyes will be checked to determine if one or both are being affected. A smear or culture from your eye may be taken, especially if a bacterial infection is suspected. In the case of allergic conjunctivitis, a patch test is often done to identify the allergen. In the rare case that dysplasia or granulomatous diseases are suspected, then an incisional biopsy is done.
The course of treatment is dictated by the cause. Common treatment methods include:
- Virus - Just as a common cold needs to run its course so must this variation. This generally happens within four to seven days, but can take several weeks, in some cases. Artificial tears can ease symptoms, as can a warm or cool compress. Throw away eye makeup and contacts that have been exposed to the condition and wash your hands frequently, especially before touching your eyes.
- Bacterial - Pinkeye resulted from bacteria is treated with antibiotics. This may be in the form of pills, eye drops, or ointments. Improvement is usually seen within four days. Always finish the cycle of prescribed medication, even if you see improvement.
- Allergies - A case of pinkeye associated with allergies should improve when the trigger is removed. Of course, the cause is often not known without a patch test. Symptoms can be treated with anti-allergy medications and aspirin, ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Irritant - Pinkeye caused by an irritant is generally treated with a combination of eye washing and steroidal eye drops. If acid or some type of alkaline material is to blame, then rinse the eyes immediately with a lot of water and call your physician right away.
Like all treatable medical conditions, prevention is always the best cure. You can avoid contracting pinkeye with some simple practices, such as:
- Change washcloths and towels daily
- Do not share towels with others
- Never share personal eye care items or cosmetics, such as mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow or eye drops
- Change pillowcases frequently
- Wash hands thoroughly and regularly
- Avoid hand-to-eye contact
- Protect your eyes from irritating substances
- Never wear contacts belonging to someone else
Being aware of causes and preventative tips will help you avoid this contagious medical condition. If you recognize symptoms, avoid contact with other people and make an appointment with your physician to be properly diagnosed.