Conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye”, is an inflammation of the membrane (conjunctiva) that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inner surface of the eyelid. There are three main causes of conjunctivitis. One cause involves the introduction of either bacteria or viruses into the eye. These germs may be transmitted to the eye by contaminated hands, washcloths, towels, or cosmetics (particularly eye makeup). Mild cases of conjunctivitis many times will occur with a cold or viral infection. Although bacterial and some of the viral infections (particularly herpes) are not very common, they are potentially serious. Both types of infection are contagious. Irritants are another cause of conjunctivitis. Offenders of this type include air pollutants, smoke, soap, hairspray, makeup, chlorine, cleaning fluids, etc. Lastly, some individuals acquire conjunctivitis due to a seasonal allergic response to grass and other pollens.
Various combinations of the following symptoms may be present: itching, redness, sensitivity to light, swelling of the lids and/or discharge from the eyes. The consistency of possible discharge may range from watery to purulent (pus-like), depending on the specific cause of the conjunctivitis.
It usually takes from a few days to 2 weeks for most types of conjunctivitis to clear. Conjunctivitis due to an allergy may continue as long as the offending pollen is present. With such conditions, symptoms are likely to recur each year.
Treatment varies depending on the cause. Medications in the form of ointments, drops or pills may be recommended to help kill a bacteria infecting the eye, relieve allergic symptoms and/or decrease discomfort. In the case of conjunctivitis due to a viruses your pediatrician may recommend that you be patient and let it run its course.
Other measures that should be followed:
- Apply cool compresses to the infected eye(s) 3-4 times per day for 10-15 minutes using a clean washcloth each time. This should help reduce itching and swelling and provide some comfort.
- Wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your eyes.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes to decrease irritation of the area.
- Wear sunglasses if your eyes are sensitive to the light.
- Avoid exposure to the irritants which may be causing the conjunctivitis.
- Dispose of old eye makeup if the culture for bacteria is positive.
- Use a clean pillowcase each night.
- Avoid wearing contact lenses while you are using medications or if your eyes are uncomfortable.
Although many kinds of conjunctivitis are hard to prevent, there are measures that can be taken to decrease your risk of reacquiring or spreading it to someone else. These are listed below:
- Do not share eye makeup or cosmetics of any kind with someone else.
- Avoid sharing washcloths or towels.
- Wash hands frequently and keep away from the eyes.
When to call the doctor:
If any of the following problems should occur, notify your clinician:
- Visual changes
- Severe eye pain
- Pain when moving eyes
- No improvement with medication within 48-72 hours
- Drainage continues after you have completed full course of medication
- Eyes become very sensitive to light
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