Approximately fifteen to twenty million Americans are afflicted annually with the epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, an infection or irritation of the thin, clear membrane, known as the conjunctiva, that lies over the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. More commonly known as conjunctivitis or pink eye, because of the uncharacteristic red and possibly swollen appearance the eye takes on during this condition, it is most commonly caused by either or a viral or bacterial infection. It can also be the result of an allergic reaction or other irritants. In newborns it may be due to a blocked tear duct. Both bacterial and viral pink eye can be highly contagious and can easily be spread for as long as two weeks after signs or symptoms first appear.
The most common symptoms of pink eye include redness, itchiness, tearing, discharge that forms a crust at night and a gritty feeling in the eye. Symptoms can appear in one or both eyes. It is important to see a doctor in order to get a proper diagnosis as well as determining a proper course of treatment, if applicable. Doctors recommend that those with contagious conjunctivitis remain at home from work or school until they are no longer contagious. While conjunctivitis can occur in both children and adults, it is found more frequently in children, as it can spread rapidly in communal settings such as classrooms, day care centers and summer camps.
The American Academy of Ophthamology estimates that more than three million school days are missed annually because of pink eye. Outbreaks of conjunctivitis are more prevalent in densely populated countries such as Japan, which has over a million cases annually. Approximately two percent of all primary care visits and one percent of emergency room visits are related to conjunctivitis.
According to the National Institutes for Health, most cases of conjunctivitis are viral in origin and are generally accompanied by other bodily infections including measles, the flu or the common cold. Viral conjunctivitis, which often begins in one eye and can spread to the other eye in just a few days, is generally accompanied by a watery discharge and can spread to others through the air by coughing or sneezing. In most cases, there is no treatment for viral conjunctivitis. The condition will resolve itself after the virus has run its course, which can take as long as fourteen to twenty one days.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is often accompanied by a slightly thicker yellow or green discharge that can form a crust on the eye when sleeping. It is generally treated with antibiotic ointments or eye drops which kill the bacteria responsible for pink eye. Patients with the bacterial form can generally return to school or work after twenty four hours, when they are no longer contagious, and symptoms should subside within a few days.
Conjunctivitis caused by either allergies or an irritant can be improved by eliminating exposure to the allergen or any potential triggers. In the case of allergic conjunctivitis, which is characterized by itchiness, tearing and puffy eyelids, both antihistamines and avoidance of the allergen should provide relief. Wearing eye protection when working in the wind, heat, cold or with chemicals, as well as avoiding excessive smoke and perfume, should prevent instances of pink eye caused by irritants.
Good hygiene is the key to limiting the spread of contagious forms of pink eye. The bacteria or virus can survive on items or hard surfaces touched by an infected person and spread it to others for as long as seven weeks. For those with infectious conjunctivitis, the Mayo Clinic recommends frequent hand washing, changing towels, washcloths and pillow cases daily, discarding all eye makeup as well as not sharing towels, linens, eye makeup or any personal eye care items. Avoid touching your eyes and if you do, wash your hands immediately.
Contact lens wearers should not wear their lenses until the infection has cleared. While regular contact lenses can be disinfected before wearing, disposable lenses should be thrown out, as should all accessories that could carry the infection, including contact lens solution and cases.
Home treatment for conjunctivitis includes frequent hand washing and using compresses (cool for allergies, warm in all other occurrences) to provide relief. Wipe eyes from the inside corner outward, using a different compress for each eye in order to avoid spreading the infection. Non-prescription artificial tears may also relieve itching and burning, although the same bottle of drops should never be used for both an infected eye and an uninfected eye. Folk remedies to alleviate pink eye symptoms include placing cooled chamomile tea bags on the eyes or using an eye wash made of either eyebright, an anti-inflammatory wild herb found in Europe, or boric acid.