The Rub on Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)
Conjunctivitis, or “pink eye” as it’s more commonly called, affects more than 3million Americans each year. While most commonly found in children ages 3-13, conjunctivitis can be contracted at any age. Itching, noticeable redness, and tearing in the affected eye are all symptoms, but conjunctivitis can be caused by several different factors.
In simple terms, pink eye is an irritation (or inflammation) of the conjunctiva – the thin, clear outer membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the insides of the eyelids. Foreign bodies come into contact with the surface of the eye and this triggers inflammation in the conjunctiva, which causes the conjunctival blood vessels to dilate. This dilation of blood vessels is what causes the pink-red, bloodshot appearance of the eyes.
In each case of pink eye, it’s important to immediately remove contact lenses and wear only your glasses to lessen the risk of any possible complications. And though it sounds scary, conjunctivitis is typically easy to treat; and, with proper awareness and precautions, it can even be avoided. There are three primary types of conjunctivitis, and though there are some similarities, each type is very different from the other.
1. Allergic Conjunctivitis
This type of pink eye is caused by any number of different allergens making contact with the surface of the eyes. Depending upon the specific allergies, susceptible individuals could be at higher risk for allergic conjunctivitis either seasonally or year-round. For instance, those suffering from pollen allergies would be at a higher risk for pink eye during the season in which those plants are pollenating. While those suffering from dust, dander, or environmental allergies would be more susceptible to allergic pink eye year-round.
Allergic conjunctivitis is marked by itchy, burning, and watering in both eyes, never just one. Most allergies are multi-systemic, meaning the histamine releases associated with allergic reactions affect two or more of the body’s systems. For this reason, allergic conjunctivitis is often accompanied by a runny nose or sinus congestion. However, because allergies can’t be passed on from person to person, this type of pink eye isn’t contagious.
2. Bacterial Conjunctivitis
Though less common than the other two types, bacterial conjunctivitis can lead to infection and serious eye damage when left untreated. Bacteria are usually introduced to the eye from physical contact as opposed to contact from airborne bodies. For instance, bacteria could be present on a door handle or flat surface. After touching these surfaces and then touching or rubbing eyes, bacteria could be introduced to the conjunctiva and cause inflammation. Maintaining good hygiene and regular handwashing can help to limit infection and the colonization of harmful bacteria.
In addition to the typical redness associated with pink eye, bacterial conjunctivitis is marked by a thick, yellow or green discharge in the corner of the eye. In some cases, the discharge can be productive enough to cause the eyelids to become stuck together after sleeping or napping. Pink eye caused by bacteria can affect one or both eyes and is contagious, with bacteria usually being transmitted after direct contact with the infected eye, infected hands, or after handling instruments or objects that have touched the infected eye. Bacterial conjunctivitis can be a serious medical issue. Contact your optometrist immediately if you show any signs or symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis.
3. Viral Conjunctivitis
The most common form of conjunctivitis is also, unfortunately, the most contagious. For this reason, an outbreak of viral conjunctivitis, say, in your child’s 5th grade class will spread like wildfire. Viruses are expert travelers, and in most cases, are transmitted through the air via sneezing or coughing from an infected individual. As with any viral infection, those with viral conjunctivitis should limit their exposure to non-infected people while experiencing symptoms.
Although it can affect both eyes, symptoms of viral conjunctivitis typically present themselves in just one eye. As with any virus, this type of pink eye will typically run its course and symptoms will subside with no medical treatment required. In addition to rest, applying a cold, damp washcloth to the eyes several times daily can help relived the itchiness and irritation associated with viral conjunctivitis. However, be sure not to share your washcloth, so as not to infect anyone else with viral pink eye.
Though each of the primary types of conjunctivitis are distinct from each other, it can often be difficult to determine which type of pink eye you may have by symptoms alone. Any time you develop red, irritated eyes, you should call an optometrist immediately to schedule an eye exam.
In the downtown Naples area, call Naples Optical Center at 239.263.6677. In the Pine Ridge/Vineyards area, call Naples Optical Too at 239.353.8794. In the North Naples/Immokalee area, call our sister store, Spectacles of Naples (located in Mercato) at 239.566.9307.
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For more information on helping protect yourself from conjunctivitis, check out the CDC’s latest infographic by clicking here.