Pink Eye – Conjunctivitis: A Conundrum

imageSo You Think You Have Pinkeye
One expert gives his opinion on how to treat it


Spring blooms mixed with lingering winter germs create the perfect scene for pinkeye. Itchy, swollen, runny eyes are technically known as conjunctivitis, which can actually take three forms: viral, bacterial and allergic. The allergic variety, which isn’t contagious, often surfaces when flowers start to re-emerge. The other forms are highly contagious. Richard Abbott, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco, and past president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says this season so far hasn’t been markedly worse than others, but it isn’t over yet. Here is one expert’s opinion.

How can you tell which kind of conjunctivitis you have?

Allergic pinkeye tends to be watery, itchy and could affect both eyes. Viral conjunctivitis is likely to have a watery discharge and the eyes might be sensitive to light. The discharge associated with bacterial conjunctivitis tends to be thicker, with more mucus.

It matters in part because the treatment is different. Antibiotic drops are likely to be only offered in cases of bacterial infection, says Dr. Abbott. With the other two types of the disease, watchful treatment at home is recommended.

How can you prevent pinkeye?

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious. If someone in your house has the viral variety of the disease and touches a surface such as a doorknob, the virus can live on that surface for several weeks, Dr. Abbott says.

Bacterial conjunctivitis, while contagious, doesn’t spread as easily, he says. Stay home for as long as the eyes are red and watering, he says.

Make sure to discard any tissues used immediately. Make sure whoever is affected isn’t sharing towels or pillows—or anything that comes into contact with the eyes or hands. And once your home is rid of disease, disinfect major surfaces and wash sheets and towels. Computers are an unexpected place where viruses can linger, so make sure to wipe down your keyboard.

Is pinkeye always conjunctivitis?

Don’t panic just because you or your child has a swollen puffy eye. The most common causes of pinkeye are the three forms of conjunctivitis, but Dr. Abbott advises ruling out more serious problems with a trip to the pediatrician or ophthalmologist.

You should worry if vision is blurred or you are in real pain, not just discomfort, Dr. Abbott says, or if symptoms aren’t resolving themselves at home.

How can you treat the problem at home?

Dr. Abbott suggests soaking a washcloth in an ice bath and applying it to the eyelids every hour. Avoid reinfecting yourself by using a fresh washcloth each time, he cautions. For bacterial infections, warm compresses can be better.

Dr. Abbott likes to use small vials of nonpreserved artificial tears. He suggests refrigerating them, since the cold feels good on the eye, and discarding the vial once opened. Anything with preservative can be irritating, he cautions. He advises against drops that work by constricting blood vessels for the same reason.

Getting drops into eyes, especially children’s, requires a steady hand and extra dose of patience. Instruct the patient to look away from the nose and place the drop onto the inner part of the eye nearest the nose.

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