Pink eye - What is conjunctivitis?

When meeting people, eye contact is the first type of communication that we engage in. It could take the form of a happy smile that wrinkles the corners of the eye, a suggestive wink, or maybe an angry furrowing of the eyebrows. But wait, as you give your usual greeting to someone- a co-worker, a classmate, or a family member perhaps- something doesn’t escape your notice. There’s something wrong with the other person’s eyes. Why are they red? The first thought most people get would be, “That’s definitely sore eyes!” The usual reaction would be to move as far away from the person as possible to avoid contracting the disease and the discomfort that it brings. But can it really be passed around from one person to another?

What we usually observe

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The redness of the sclera which we often associate with conjunctivitis is due to the ongoing inflammation reaction of the eye, which makes the blood vessels more visible. The process of inflammation also elicits the experience of pain, itch or burning sensation, and photophobia. The eye would feel very irritated, and it would feel as if a foreign body is present in its socket. Eyes can become more watery than normal, and may even produce discharge that can crust over the opening of the eye. If the reaction is due to a virus or bacteria, you may often observe the presence of a tender lump in front of the ear. This is indicative of an active infection, and in that area lies a lymph node which is trying to help the body fight off the infection for you. 

In order to accurately diagnose conjunctivitis, you may seek out a medical professional in order to have your eyes examined. The clinical signs, symptoms, and your health history will be assessed. Laboratory tests are usually done to confirm the specific condition if the personal history suggests that this is a case of bacterial conjunctivitis. More of that would be discussed later.


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The main suspects of conjunctivitis are viruses and bacteria. Viral conjunctivitis is more commonly caused by two types: the adenovirus, which may cause flu-like symptoms, and herpesvirus, which involves blistering of the skin. Other associated viruses are varicella-zoster, which causes shingles and chickenpox, and rubella, which causes measles. There is also a tendency of occurrence in both eyes for the viral sort. Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumonia, or Haemophilus. The bacterial type usually incurs inflammation within one eye only. Pink eye caused by bacteria and viruses can be passed on from one person to another. This is why it is common in school children and working adults, with around three million cases occurring in the United States annually. But keep in mind that pink eye is not exclusively caused by the two factors mentioned above. 

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Is pink eye only contracted from a virus or bacteria? The answer is no. Inflammation of the conjunctiva can also be triggered by an allergic reaction to agents such as pollen, mold, animal dander or dust mites. This specific type tends to occur in both of the eyes, and is often seen with other allergy symptoms. It can also be an effect of an irritant such as chlorine from swimming pools, smoke, cosmetic products and even contact lenses and eye solutions. Basically, anything that contacts the eye may be a source of a reaction. Now, how do we determine the actual agent that is the cause of the reaction? A health professional may help you recall your health history and find out for you which culprit is the source. 


Often, this type of condition has a self-healing characteristic, much like the common cold. It just needs a little time in order for the body to successful combat the foreign agents. Usually, it clears up in 7-14 days without direct treatment. Management of symptoms would then be the top priority during the time of recovery. Cold eye drops may be your best friend for this scenario to relieve the dry and itchy sensation. Antibiotics in the form of prescribed antibiotic eye drops may be applied to the area to reduce spread and shorten the disease cycle in the body. Be wary if symptoms do not improve after 24 hours of application though and consult a medical professional.

Allergy-induced pink eye can be improved by eliminating the contact with the agent as well as providing relief by way of drops and the usual allergy medications. Avoid swimming, animals and pollen, or even your contact lenses if a reaction occurs. Confirm where the irritation source comes from, and try to reduce your exposure to these substances. Once the cause is eliminated, your eyes will heal up in no time. 

However, if there is presence of a systemic disease such as HIV, cancer, or other chronic conditions, seek medical attention immediately. These diseases may leave the immune system exposed and weakened, and the introduction of a pathogen may not warrant a high enough level of immune action to defend the body. A rule of thumb for these conditions, in order to be on the safe side, is to have yourself checked up with every and any occurrence of infection, whether moderate or mild.

Permanent or Fatal Side Effects

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Permanent or Fatal Side Effects
You can breathe easy knowing that severe side effects are rare whether your a child or adult as long as your immune system is normal. But did you know that newborn infants can also get the condition from the mother after birth? This is called neonatal conjunctivitis and in these very young individuals, the disease may become serious. Some types passed on from sexually transmitted diseases are chlamydial and gonococcal conjunctivitis.

Chemical conjunctivitis can also occur because of eye drops and ointments given to newborns. The genital and oral herpes viruses can also cause neonatal conjunctivitis and severe eye damage. It is therefore important for expecting moms to pay special attention to their health order to avoid complications. Topical antibiotics, oral antibiotics or intravenous antibiotics may be given by a physician, depending on the severity of the infection. 

How to Prevent Its Spread

Concerned about avoiding pink eye? There are two ways in which you could avoid this condition. The first thing is to limit the spread by washing your hands with soap and water after contact, as well as applying sanitizer of alcohol solution with a concentration of 60 per cent or more. Hygiene is the key to lessening the probability of you getting the infection, as well as preventing its spread to other people. Do not share any articles that comes into contact with the facial area such contact lenses, lens solutions, eye drops, towels, blankets, bed sheets, pillows, makeup brushes and eyeglasses. The second thing you need to do is to avoid getting re-infected from your own things after getting better. Anything that you applied to your face area while infected are possible sources of re-infection, so it would be the best option to get rid of them, or clean them thoroughly if they are not disposable. 


So the next time you or a family member contracts this disease, always remember to pay more attention to hygiene and to maintain isolation from the infected person and his or her articles and belongings. The probability of re-infection can be avoided by disposing items which were exposed to the individual’s facial area.  Keep in mind that conjunctivitis is similar to the common cold. You have to let it run its course and help your body mount a resistance against it. Eye drops may help you relieve the pain while waiting for the body to overcome the infection. If symptoms become severe, seek help immediately.

The eyes are an important sense, and the loss of this sense may make life quality a little difficult. Never forget that oftentimes in regards to health and wellness, prevention is better than cure.


( images are for illustration purposes only)

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