Myth has it that when one stare too much at the eye of a person with conjunctivitis, he or she automatically becomes infected. Funny, but completely not true. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation or swelling of the conjunctiva (a thin, transparent mucous membrane, which lines the inner surface of the eyelids and covers the the white part of the eye). Conjunctivitis is popularly referred to as ‘Pink Eye’ but many people from the Western region of Africa usually refer to this medical condition as Apollo since reports of its first epidermic in Accra, Ghana coincided with the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Types and Causes Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis is mainly caused by a virus, bacteria, allergies, a foreign object or a chemical splash in the eyes. There are three main types of conjunctivitis: allergic, infectious and chemical. The cause of conjunctivitis varies depending on the type.
- Allergic conjunctivitis occurs more commonly among people who already have seasonal allergies. They develop it when they come into contact with a substance that triggers an allergic reaction in their eyes.
- Giant papillary conjunctivitis is a type of allergic conjunctivitis caused by the chronic presence of a foreign body in the eye. People who wear hard or rigid contact lenses, wear soft contact lenses that are not replaced frequently, have an exposed suture on the surface of the eye or have a prosthetic eye are more likely to develop this form of conjunctivitis.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection most often caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from your own skin or respiratory system. Insects, physical contact with other people, poor hygiene (touching the eye with unclean hands), or using contaminated eye makeup and facial lotions can also cause the infection. Sharing makeup and wearing contact lenses that are not your own or are improperly cleaned can also cause bacterial conjunctivitis.
- Viral conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by contagious viruses associated with the common cold. It can develop through exposure to the coughing or sneezing of someone with an upper respiratory tract infection. Viral conjunctivitis can also occur as the virus spreads along the body’s own mucous membranes, which connect the lungs, throat, nose, tear ducts and conjunctiva. Since the tears drain into the nasal passageway, forceful nose blowing can cause a virus to move from your respiratory system to your eyes.
- Ophthalmia neonatorum is a severe form of bacterial conjunctivitis that occurs in newborn babies. This is a serious condition that could lead to permanent eye damage if it is not treated immediately. Ophthalmia neonatorum occurs when an infant is exposed to chlamydia or gonorrhea while passing through the birth canal.
Chemical Conjunctivitis can be caused by irritants like air pollution, chlorine in swimming pools, and exposure to noxious chemicals.
Symptoms of Conjunctivitis
The first sign of conjunctivitis is a change in color of the white part of your eye (usually reddish or pinkish), called the scelera. The reason your eye looks red or pink is because the blood vessels in the conjunctiva become inflamed, making them more visible.
Inflammation or irritation of the conjunctiva doesn’t always mean you have conjunctivitis. In infants, a closed tear duct can irritate the eye. Washing your face with water contains too chlorine in it can redden your eyes, too. So the fact that you have an itchy or irritated conjunctiva should not make you assume or conclude that you have conjunctivitis.
Besides the change in color of the scelera, here are some other symptoms you should look out for to ascertain if you have conjunctivitis or not:
- Itchiness of the eye
- A feeling like there is dirt or something irritating your eye
- Watery eyes
- Blurred vision
- Burning sensation in the eyes
- Increased sensitivity to bright light
- Discharge forming a crust during the night that may prevent the eyes from opening in the morning.
Treatment / Cure of Conjunctivitis
Basically, all types of conjunctivitis whether viral, bacterial or allergy can clear up on their own, with the latter usually improving once the allergen is removed. In the case of chemical conjunctivitis, flushing the eye with running water must be done immediately to remove the toxic chemical or liquid.
The appropriate treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the type and its cause. Below are basic treatments to help relieve and most probably cure conjunctivitis:
Allergic conjunctivitis: The first step is to remove or avoid the irritant, if possible. Cool compresses and artificial tears sometimes relieve discomfort in mild cases. In more severe cases, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and antihistamines may be prescribed. People with persistent allergic conjunctivitis may also require topical steroid eye drops.
Bacterial conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis is usually treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments. Bacterial conjunctivitis may improve after three or four days of treatment, but patients need to take the entire course of antibiotics to prevent recurrence.
Viral conjunctivitis: No drops or ointments can treat viral conjunctivitis. Antibiotics will not cure a viral infection. Like a common cold, the virus has to run its course, which may take up to two or three weeks. Symptoms can often be relieved with cool compresses and artificial tear solutions. For the worst cases, topical steroid drops may be prescribed to reduce the discomfort from inflammation. However, these drops will not shorten the infection.
Chemical conjunctivitis: As i have mentioned earlier, flushing the eye with running water reduces the effect and irritation. Careful flushing of the eyes with saline solution (sodium chloride in water) is a standard treatment for chemical conjunctivitis. People with chemical conjunctivitis also may need to use topical steroids. Severe chemical injuries, particularly alkali burns, are medical emergencies and can lead to scarring, damage to the eye or the sight, or even loss of the eye. If a chemical spills in your eye, flush the eye for several minutes with a lot of water before seeing your medical provider.
Prevention of Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis is not hereditary in case you might have heard that before. The safest and easiest way to prevent and avoid it is to constantly practice good hygiene.
- Avoiding touch your eyes every now and then with your hands especially when you know they are not clean.
- Wash your hands often.
- Use a clean towel and washcloth daily.
- Don’t share towels or washcloths.
- Change your pillowcases often.
- Be careful with eye cosmetics, such as mascara.
- Don’t share eye cosmetics or personal eye care items.
- For expectant mothers, it is important to ensure that shortly after birth, an antibiotic ointment is applied to your newborn’s eyes to help prevent eye infection. The eye of a newborn is susceptible to bacteria normally present in the mother’s birth canal. These bacteria cause no symptoms in the mother. In rare cases, these bacteria can cause infants to develop a serious form of conjunctivitis known as ophthalmia neonatorum, which needs treatment without delay to preserve sight.
- If you developed conjunctivitis due to wearing contact lenses, your eye doctor may recommend that you switch to a different type of contact lens or disinfection solution. Your optometrist might need to change your contact lens prescription to a lens that you replace more frequently. This can help prevent the conjunctivitis from recurring.
Key Facts About Conjunctivitis
- The infectious form of conjunctivitis is very common in children and is highly contagious.
- Literally speaking, germs do not travel on rays of light from one person to another. So staring at someone with conjunctivitis does not make you contact conjunctivitis.
- You can go blind from conjunctivitis, but most uncomplicated cases of conjunctivitis heal completely without long-term complications.
Note: It is important you pay a visit to your doctor once you realize you have any health challenge. Self medication is detrimental and should only be performed as prescribed by a physician after examination.