The conjunctiva of the eye is the thin, transparent membrane that covers the outer surface of the eye and lines the eyelid. It lies over the sclera, the white part of the eye.
When the small blood vessels of the conjunctiva become inflamed, they become more prominent and make the sclera appear red. This is why conjunctivitis is commonly called pink eye.
Conjunctivitis can occur for a number of reasons:
Viruses, similar to those that cause the common cold
Bacteria, such as those that cause ear and sinus infections, as well as the same bacteria that cause the STDs gonorrhea and Chlamydia
Irritants such as chlorine, dirt, smoke, and soap
Allergens such as dust, pollen, and animal dander
Chemicals or foreign objects in the eye
In addition, although contacts themselves don’t cause conjunctivitis, those who wear extended-wear contacts are more prone to conjunctivitis.
Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis spread from person to person in the same manner as cold and flu germs.
The following measures can help prevent the spread of these types of conjunctivitis:
Don’t share makeup
Don’t share towels or washcloths
Frequently wash pillow cases
Don’t share eyeglasses
Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
Redness of the whites of the eye and the eyelid
White or yellow discharge
Gritty sand-like feeling in the eye
Crusty eyelids, especially upon awakening
Photophobia (light sensitivity
The discharge from the eye varies depending upon the cause of the conjunctivitis. If it is viral in origin, the discharge is usually thin and clear to white. If bacterial in origin, the discharge is usually thick and yellow-green. In conjunctivitis caused by allergens, chemicals, irritants, and foreign objects, any discharge is most likely to be increased tearing.
Treatment is dependent on the cause of the conjunctivitis as well. Viruses, as with colds, need to run their course, and treatment is targeted toward comfort. Bacteria need to be treated with antibiotics in the form of drops, ointments or pills, depending upon the particular strain of bacteria involved.
When the cause is allergens, treating the allergy with antihistamines can significantly reduce symptoms. Using eye drops is helpful, too. If caused by irritants, rinsing the eye and applying eye drops is often the only treatment necessary, other than comfort measures until the irritation subsides.
When the cause is a chemical or foreign body in the eye, gently rinsing the eye is important, but it is best to seek medical treatment to protect the health of the eye
Regardless of the cause of conjunctivitis, some comfort and healing measures are useful:
Don’t rub the eye
Clean several times a day with damp cotton balls, especially upon awakening
Avoid wearing makeup until the eye is clear
Don’t wear contacts until the eye is clear, wear (eyeglasses) instead
Apply a warm compress to the eye periodically
It is always best to have a doctor evaluate conjunctivitis to determine the cause and prescribe treatment. This is especially important in newborns; they are more prone to pink eye and can have more complications from it than older children and adults.
In general, conjunctivitis is not harmful to eyesight. Though it is an irritating condition, it usually clears up within a few days with proper treatment and comfort measures.