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Causes and Cure for Conjunctivitis or Pink Eye

Causes and Cure for Conjunctivitis or Pink Eye

It is often referred to as “pink eye”. Conjunctivitis happens when swelling or inflammation occurs in conjunctiva – the thin transparent membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and the white part of the eyeball. 

Pink eye or conjunctivitis may be caused due to various reasons which could range from viral infection, due to bacterial infection, due to allergic reaction or, as in the case of babies, due to incompletely opened tear ducts. Pink eye or conjunctivitis may also occur due to a chemical splash in the eye or a foreign object in the eye.

In some cases, pink eye or conjunctivitis can also be contagious. Therefore, it is essential to get an early diagnosis done and take necessary precautions. Obviously, it can be irritating, but it rarely affects the vision. 

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Since pink eye or conjunctivitis occurs due to various reasons, symptoms too vary with the causes. Various common pink eye or conjunctivitis symptoms include i) redness in one or both eyes; ii) itchiness in one or both eyes; iii) gritty feeling in one or both eyes; iv) tearing; and/or v) photophobia i.e. sensitivity to light.

In case of pink eye or conjunctivitis due to allergy, symptoms include clear, watery discharge along with mild redness in the white area of eyes. Severe or mild itching too may occur. In case of pink eye or conjunctivitis due to bacterial infections, there may not be much pain but moderate redness can be seen with yellow/green discharge emanating from the eyes, moderate to extreme level. Eyelids too may appear red or swollen due to the constant discharge.

Contact lens wearers need to take extra precautions as they carry the risk of bacterial infection. Such people also risk a bacterial corneal ulcer developing which would include severe pain and light sensitivity. 

Types of Pink Eye or Conjunctivitis

As described, pink eye or conjunctivitis could be due to various factors.

Viral conjunctivitis: Most common cause of pink eye or conjunctivitis is due to viruses like adenovirus, but can also be caused by other viruses, including herpes simplex virus and varicella-zoster virus. These viruses are mostly associated with cold Exposure to the coughing or sneezing of a person nearby with an upper respiratory tract infection can be the cause. The virus, at times, also spreads along the body’s own mucous membranes, thus resulting in viral conjunctivitis. At times forceful nose blowing can cause a virus to move from the respiratory system to the eyes. The viral infection Epidemic Keratoconjunctivitis (EKC) is very contagious and is the red-eye most associated with the term “pink eye”.

Bacterial conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis too occurs normally with cold or symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as a sore throat. Mostly, infection spreads through direct or indirect contact with the liquid that drains from the eye of an infected person. Most such conjunctivitis are caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from the person's own skin or respiratory system. Infection may also be caused by insects, physical contact with infected people, poor hygiene i.e. touch the eye with infected/unclean hands, using contaminated eye make-up and facial lotions. Ophthalmia neonatorum is a severe form of bacterial conjunctivitis that occurs in newborn babies. This could lead to permanent eye damage if not treated immediately. Ophthalmia neonatorum occurs when an infant is exposed to chlamydia or gonorrhea while passing through the birth canal.

Allergic conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis occurs normally as a response to an allergy-causing substance such as pollen. When the person who already has seasonal allergy, comes into contact with  a substance, it may trigger an allergic reaction in the eyes. In response to allergens, the body produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E or IgE, which triggers special cells, including histamines, thus resulting in a number of allergy symptoms, including red or pink eyes. Patients may feel intense itching, tearing and inflammation of the eyes, associated with sneezing and watery nasal discharge. This type of conjunctivitis is not contagious and can mostly be controlled with allergy eye drops. Another type of conjunctivitis, known as giant papillary conjunctivitis, is caused by the chronic presence of a foreign body in the eye. People who wear contact lenses, have an exposed suture on the surface of the eye or have a prosthetic eye are more likely to develop this type of conjunctivitis.

Chemical conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis can be caused by irritants like air population, water contamination including due to presence of chlorine in the swimming pool water, and exposure to various noxious chemicals. Immediate care is required in cases of severe chemical injuries, as in alkali burns, which could lead to scarring, damage to the eye or the sight, or even loss of the eye. Immediate precaution, in such cases, is to wash the eye thoroughly with clean water. Symptoms, which may include watery eyes and a mucous discharge, usually last only about a day. 

Going to the Doctor

Since there are several factors that cause pink eye or conjunctivitis, it is always advisable to go to the doctor when the symptoms remain even after 12 to 24 hours. It is only after a comprehensive eye examination through testing, with special emphasis on the conjunctiva and surrounding tissues, that the causes for pink eye or conjunctivitis can be diagnosed. The doctor may ask patient history to understand how and why the symptoms began and if any general health or environmental condition contributed to the problem. Tests may include visual acuity measurements, evaluation of the conjunctiva and external eye tissue under bright light and magnification, evaluation of the inner structures of the eye and supplemental testing, which may include taking cultures or smears of conjunctival tissue. Upon evaluation of test results, a doctor of optometry can determine the causes for pink eye or conjunctivitis and move ahead with the treatment. 

Prevention better than cure

For various causes, different preventive measures may be suggested. Key point to note is early diagnosis and treatment, which will help prevent the condition from becoming worse.  It is advisable to wash hands frequently and keep the hands away from eyes to the extent possible. 

Other precautions that may be suggested are as follows:

  • Avoid touching eyes with the hands.

  • Wash your hands often

  • Use a clean towel and washcloth daily

  • Avoid sharing towels or washcloths

  • Change your pillowcases often

  • Throw away old eye cosmetics, such as mascara

  • Avoid sharing eye cosmetics or personal eye care items with others

  • Follow eye doctor's instructions on proper contact lens care

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