The winter season brings chilly temperatures, but also illnesses like the common cold or flu. While these illnesses are often spread through person-to-person contact, they are not the only infections that people deal with during the colder months.
Winter is also a prime time for conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye.” Pink eye is one of the most common eye conditions in children and adults. According to the National Eye Institute, there are about 3 million cases of pink eye each year in the United States.
Pink eye is a swelling or inflammation of the conjunctiva — the thin membrane that lines the eye and eyelids. This membrane contains small blood vessels and creates mucus to protect the eye. When the conjunctiva is irritated, it can cause redness of the eyes, discharge from the eyes, crusting around the eyelashes, discomfort, a sensitivity to bright lights or a sensation that there is something in the eye.
There are three common kinds of pink eye. Viral conjunctivitis is caused by a viral infection and usually occurs in both eyes. This type of pink eye usually disappears by itself after one to two weeks.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by a bacterial infection and can be present in one or both eyes. In addition to contact with other people with bacterial conjunctivitis, risk factors include poor contact lens hygiene and other diseases that affect the surface of the eye.
Allergic conjunctivitis also occurs often in both eyes and is caused by high pollen count, dust mites, mold or animal dander. Itchy nose, sneezing and a scratchy throat may be affiliated with this kind of pink eye, and the eyes may feel itchy.
Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis can be very contagious, making children more susceptible to getting pink eye due to contact with other kids in school or day care. However, pink eye is also one of the most treatable eye conditions in children and adults, and can easily be prevented.
To limit the spread of pink eye, wash your hands often with soap and water, especially if you have had contact with an infected person’s eyes or clothes. Other ways to prevent pink eye include not sharing eye makeup, makeup brushes, contact lenses, eyeglasses, towels, blankets and pillowcases, and to avoid touching or rubbing the eyes.
Most cases of pink eye are minor and do not require a prescription. To lessen discomfort when diagnosed with viral conjunctivitis, ophthalmologists recommend applying a cool compress to the eyes or using artificial tears. Antibiotic eye drops may be prescribed if the diagnosis with bacterial conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated by removing the allergen and with eye drops or oral allergy medication.
It is important to monitor someone who has been diagnosed with pink eye for more serious symptoms, such as a loss of vision. If the infection is not improving, or if the person is experiencing severe pain, the person should contact an eye care professional immediately to prevent a more serious eye problem.
Dr. Palak Wall is a Pediatric Ophthalmologist with KentuckyOne Health Pediatric Ophthalmology Care.