While anyone can get “pink eye,” it is the most common eye infection in school-aged children. It can be very uncomfortable and highly-contagious and can quickly run rampant through schools, daycares, and other locations where children are together.
What is “Pink Eye” or Conjunctivitis?
The conjunctiva is a clear, thin mucous membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the underside of the eyelids. This tissue is susceptible to infection by bacteria and viruses. The most common causes of conjunctivitis in children are bacteria, viruses, or allergies. Eye irritants such as pool chlorine, smoke, shampoo, and soaps may also cause conjunctivitis.
In all types of conjunctivitis, the eyes are uncomfortable and the whites of the eyes are red, with a light pink up to a bright red appearance (hence, the name “pinkeye”). Symptoms may include frequent tearing, pain, light sensitivity, discharge, swelling of the eyelids, itching, and matting shut of the eyelids. The most common type of conjunctivitis in children is caused by bacteria. The bacteria that cause eye infections are often the same ones that cause sinus and ear infections, and infections involving these different organ systems may all occur simultaneously.
Bacterial conjunctivitis can develop quickly and may cause significant crusting of the eyelids, yellow to green discharge of pus during the day, and matting of the eyelids so that they are difficult to open upon waking in the morning. Bacterial conjunctivitis is contagious and is easily spread to the unaffected eye and other people. Primary Eyecare advises patients with bacterial (and viral) conjunctivitis to behave the same way they would when they have a cold: wash your hands frequently, don’t shake hands with others, and don’t share towels, washcloths, and pillowcases with others. Also, don’t rub or wipe the infected eye and then rub the unaffected eye, as it will become cross-infected.
Parents should consider keeping children home from school for forty-eight hours after starting antibiotic eyedrops to prevent spreading of the infection to other people. Conjunctivitis spreads quickly through schools and daycare centers, but the spread of pinkeye is mitigated if the child stays home for a couple of days. Bacterial conjunctivitis will likely go away on it’s own within ten days, but treatment with prescription antibiotic eyedrops clears the infection in half the time or less and reduces the exposure of others to the contagious infection. Visiting Primary Eyecare at the first sign of an eye infection is strongly recommended. Click here to Request An Appointment!
Viral conjunctivitis has many of the same symptoms as bacterial conjunctivitis. Viral eye infections make the eyes look pink in color, whereas bacterial infections make the eyes more red than pink. Another difference between viral and bacterial infections is that viral infections cause more excessive tearing, with little to no pus in the discharge. Bacterial infections usually involve heavy amounts of pus.
Viral eye infections may last anywhere from a few days up to several months. Like all viruses, there are not many treatment options for this type of infection other than cold compresses to comfort the eyes. Infrequently, a doctor may use a steroid eye drop in an attempt to make a very uncomfortable patient feel better, but it does not alter the course of the virus. A newer treatment option that is “off-label” — not specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and has reportedly excellent results is a diluted solution of Betadine, which is directly applied to the eye as an eyedrop in the doctor’s office. Betadine is an iodine solution that is widely used as a sterilization preparation on the skin prior to a surgical procedure.
Allergic conjunctivitis is more common in adults than children, but it may occur at any age. Allergic conjunctivitis occurs in a rapid fashion as the result of exposure to pollen, grass, dust mites, chemical exposure, certain foods, or exposure to any other substance that you are allergic to. It can be either acute or chronic. Acute allergic conjunctivitis is the eye’s rapid (and exaggerated) response to an allergen. The hallmark symptoms are itchiness of the eyes, redness, and sometimes swelling of the eyelids. If the itchiness worsens when you rub the eyes, it is likely an allergic reaction. Depending on the severity, the eyelids may swell enough to cause them to shut due to the excessive inflammatory response. Acute allergic reactions may involve other areas of the body in addition to the eyes, so it’s wise to seek medical attention. Once your doctor at Primary Eyecare has diagnosed your condition, there are several treatment options to make you more comfortable. Severe allergic reactions may even require prescription medications or epinephrine injections.
Chronic allergic conjunctivitis is typically a less severe, but longer lasting manifestation of the same signs and symptoms. Acute conjunctivitis normally occurs when there’s a limited exposure to the offending agent and then it’s removed, whereas chronic conjunctivitis is a result of prolonged exposure to the allergen. Chronic allergic conjunctivitis frequently occurs when someone lives with a pet they are allergic to or due to the seasonal hayfever that occurs in the Spring and Fall months in many areas of the country. Over-the-counter anti-allergy medications are a good way to begin treating chronic allergies. However, prescription tablets, liquid, nasal spray, and eyedrop medications are very effective in the management of chronic allergies.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: Copyright © 2011 | Dr. Joseph DiGirolamo, OD | The Big Book of Family Eye Care