Infections, allergy cause 'pink eye'

Expert advice

February 01, 2010

Conjunctivitis, commonly called "pink eye," is an acute inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the thin, transparent outermost layer of the eye.

Dr. John Jackson of Greater Annapolis Medical Group on the campus of Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis describes what causes conjunctivitis and how it is treated.

•The conjunctiva comprises many small blood vessels and tiny secretory glands, which lubricate and protect the eye. Conjunctivitis is usually caused by either an infection or an allergic reaction. The infection is usually either a virus (more common) or bacteria.

Commonly conjunctivitis is passed from person to person due to lack of hygiene. Diagnosis can usually be made from the history and examination alone. Additional testing is rarely necessary unless there is a lack of response to treatment.

•Viral conjunctivitis is usually associated with other symptoms of upper respiratory illness or colds, such as runny nose, sore throat and cough. The infection usually begins with one eye but may easily spread to the other eye. The eye appears pink and there is often a discharge, usually clear. There may be symptoms of itching, irritation and mild discomfort.

•Bacterial infections produce similar symptoms, but the discharge may be more like pus, thick and colored, which often causes the lids to become matted or stuck together in the morning. Allergic conjunctivitis more often involves both eyes simultaneously; itching is prevalent and the discharge is clear. There is usually some swelling of the eyelids and other allergy symptoms are present, such as sneezing, itchy and runny nose.

•Both viral and bacterial infections are contagious but they usually resolve within several days without treatment.

If you are affected by conjunctivitis, you should avoid touching your eyes or sharing towels and washcloths. Cold compresses to the eye can provide some relief. If there is no improvement after several days, antibiotic drops may be helpful.

•Symptoms of severe eye pain and visual disturbance are not usually associated with conjunctivitis and should prompt urgent evaluation to look for other possible causes such as iritis, scleritis, uveitis and foreign bodies.

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