Conjunctivitis is the inflammation of blood vessels of the conjunctiva due to infection or allergies. Also called `pink eye’, it typically causes irritation of the conjunctiva and redness of the eye.
The conjunctiva is a thin, clear membrane that covers the white surface of the eye (called sclera), and the inner surfaces of the eyelids. The conjunctiva protects the eye from irritants and microbes.
Conjunctivitis can affect one eye, or both eyes at the same time. If only one eye is infected, the other eye can be spared from the infection by taking some precautions and care. The infection can spread very easily by skin contact, or by touching a contaminated surface or item.
Conjunctivitis is rarely a serious health risk except when it occurs in a new-born whose vision can be affected by it.
Typically, conjunctivitis starts in one eye and usually shows the following symptoms:
- Redness and burning of the eyes along with watery discharge
- Persistent feeling of something being present in the eyes, and increased secretion of tears
- Itchy, painful, and watery eyes
- Blurry or hazy vision and sensitivity to light
- Puffy eyelids
- Mucus or pus discharges from the affected eye, often making the upper and lower eyelashes stick together
- Children affected by conjunctivitis who also show symptoms such as rashes, high fever and extreme sensitivity to indoor light may require immediate specialist care to check for measles
Conjunctivitis is most often caused by an adenovirus, like the one that causes the common cold. Other viruses that can cause conjunctivitis are the herpes simplex virus, the varicella-zoster virus and even the coronavirus. This type of conjunctivitis is very contagious, and particularly affects school-going children.
Conjunctivitis can also be caused by infection from bacteria – usually the same bacterium that causes sore throat or strep throat. The discharge is thicker than that of a viral infection.
Both these types can spread by direct contact, from an infected person’s fluids through a hand-eye route.
Infection can also spread from one’s own nose or mouth to the eyes. Poorly maintained contact lenses can easily cause infections. Cosmetics like eye makeup provide a suitable environment for bacteria to thrive and cause conjunctivitis.
Allergic conjunctivitis occurs as a reaction to pollen, smoke, some chemicals in eye drops or chlorine from swimming pool. When allergy is the reason, both eyes are usually affected.
Usually, a good description of the symptoms and an eye examination are enough to diagnose the condition. A swab of the fluid from the eyelid can be taken to determine whether it is a virus or bacteria that has caused it.
Viral conjunctivitis requires no specific treatment. It is self-limiting and the infection subsides within a week to 10 days.
- A clean, warm, wet cloth placed over the eyes will provide some comfort. It can be repeated as often as needed, but a new cloth should be used every time. Also, a different cloth is advised for each eye, in case both are infected
- Your doctor could prescribe antibiotic eye drops for infections of bacterial origin
- In case of severe pain your doctor may also cover you with NSAIDs
- Your doctor may also prescribe other kinds of eye drops for symptomatic relief that improves eye lubrication and reduces itching and swelling
- Allergy medicine taken orally and as eye drops may be prescribed, if needed
- Rinsing the eyes thoroughly will help if the conjunctivitis is due to a chemical or foreign object
Precaution and prevention
Contact lenses should not be worn until conjunctivitis subsides.
Children should be taught to practise good personal hygiene. At school, they should not share towels, or stationery. They must be encouraged to wash hands thoroughly before and after eating, and after visiting the bathroom.