Question of the Week

December 18, 2006


What is conjunctivitis?

"Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is an infection of the conjunctiva (the outer-most layer of the eye that covers the sclera).  The three most common types of conjunctivitis are: viral, allergic, and bacterial.  Each requires different treatments.  With the exception of the allergic type, conjunctivitis is typically contagious. ... The allergic type occurs more frequently among those with allergic conditions.  When related to allergies, the symptoms are often seasonal.  Allergic conjunctivitis may also be caused by intolerance to substances such as cosmetics, perfume, or drugs."
(For those interested in viewing an image that will show students what "pink eye" can look like, the above site contains a graphic close-up of an eye with conjunctivitis.) While the allergic type of conjunctivitis is a personal reaction to something in the environment with which a person has contact (and is not contagious), both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are easily spread.

"Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis may affect one or both eyes. Viral conjunctivitis usually produces a watery or mucous discharge. Bacterial conjunctivitis often produces a thicker, yellow-green discharge and may be associated with a respiratory infection or with a sore throat. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are associated with colds. Both viral and bacterial types are very contagious. Adults and children alike can develop both of these types of pink eye. However, bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children than it is in adults."

While many people associate pink eye with small children, anyone can get it. Teens and adults may not remember what it felt like to have pink eye as a child -- and since there are so many different causes of conjunctivitis, different people (or the same person at different times) will show different symptoms. All this can sometimes make it difficult for teens and young adults to accurately determine what is causing the irritation in their eyes.

"Conjunctivitis can affect one or both eyes. The most common symptom is discomfort in the eye, which may feel itchy or gritty. There often will be some discharge from the eyes and pain, swelling of the conjunctiva, and the very pink or red coloring that gives the infection its nickname. It can be hard to tell whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria. In general, the discharge associated with viral conjunctivitis is watery, whereas it will be thicker and more pus-like when the infection is caused by bacteria. When you wake up in the morning, your eyelids may be stuck together (don't be alarmed, though -- cleaning your eyes with a warm washcloth will loosen the dried crusts). Itchiness and tearing are common with allergic conjunctivitis."

While the above information can provide helpful guidelines, it is important to see a doctor of conjunctivitis is suspected.

"Pink eye can be an irritating condition, but it's usually harmless to your sight and typically doesn't require extensive or emergency treatment. Yet because pink eye can be highly contagious for as long as two weeks after signs and symptoms begin, it's important to seek diagnosis and treatment early. Keep children with bacterial conjunctivitis away from child care facilities or school until after they start treatment. Children with viral conjunctivitis are usually contagious for a few days. Check with your doctor if you have any questions about when your child can return to school or child care. Most schools and child care facilities require that your child wait at least 24 hours after starting treatment before returning to school or child care. Occasionally, conjunctivitis causes corneal complications -- in both adults and children -- making early treatment even more important."

With cold and flu season upon us, good hygiene is important for many reasons. As is the case with numerous diseases,

"Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of conjunctivitis:
* Keep hands away from the eye.
* Wash the hands frequently.
* Change pillowcases frequently.
* Replace eye cosmetics regularly.
* Do not share eye cosmetics.
* Do not share towels or handkerchiefs.
* Handle and clean contact lenses properly."

Questions of the Week:
What do you, your friends, and your family members need to know about conjunctivitis? What can you do to reduce your risk of contracting or spreading either viral or bacterial conjunctivitis? What can you do to reduce your risk of allergic conjunctivitis? If you suspect that you or someone you know has conjunctivitis, what should you do? Even if those around you show no signs of being sick, what preventative measures can you take to keep yourself healthy?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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