Allergy season is upon us! It’s the time of year when we wake up with a tickle in our throats and walk outside to find our car is suddenly painted icky-green with pollen.
Our respiratory systems tend to take the hardest hit this time of year, but our eyes may not like it so much either. A little thing called conjunctivitis amps up its game around this time each year, a condition we know by the more common, succinctly descriptive name of pink eye.
So how can you tell if your little one’s eyes are leaking and gooey because of histamines, or if it’s something a little more sinister? Read on and find out everything you need to know about this itchy, irritating problem.
So What Exactly Is It?
Conjunctivitis, also called pink eye, is the blanket term for anytime there’s a swelling of your conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the thin, clear membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids. It can become inflamed for any number of reasons, and no matter the cause, the result is more or less the same: conjunctivitis.
Pink eye is exactly what it sounds like, at its most basic. The inflammation of the conjunctiva causes the blood vessels in the eye to swell, and once inflamed, the blood vessels become much more visible in the eye. Those swollen blood vessels are what give the eye that distinct pink color that is the primary symptom of conjunctivitis.
Not all conjunctivitis is cut from the same cloth – some variations of pink eye are contagious, some are not. The cause of any one case of pink eye is usually discernible by a doctor during a physical examination, and the cause will determine the treatment.
Most often, pink eye is caused by viruses or bacteria infecting one or both eyes. The symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis in particular are what most people think of when the words “pink eye” are said. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious, and are the usual culprits for outbreaks of pink eye in schools and workplaces.
However, pink eye can also be caused by allergies, blocked tear ducts (especially in newborns), and by irritants such as chemicals or foreign substances and objects in the eye. These types of pink eye are not contagious and usually clear up on their own with time.
Signs & Symptoms
As mentioned above, the key indicator of conjunctivitis is that pink or red coloration in the white parts of the eyes. It can be present in one or both eyes, depending on the cause. This redness can be accompanied by itching, burning, or general irritation in the affected eye(s).
Conjunctivitis will often make one or both eyes water and produce more tears than normal. Sometimes, pink eye will cause a gritty sensation, like there’s something in the eye that doesn’t belong there. Pink eye may also cause some blurred vision and sensitivity to light.
Depending on the type of conjunctivitis, the eye may also produce a mucous-like discharge that can be clear, white, green, or yellow. Sometimes this discharge can be sticky or crusty, again depending on what is causing the condition. This sticky discharge may make the affected individual feel like their eyelids are glued together.
Some individuals may experience swelling in the lymph nodes in front of the ear in connection with pink eye. This occurs because the body is fighting infection, and the lymph nodes are working overtime trying to filter out whatever is attacking the body.
Viral conjunctivitis is often accompanied by a cold or respiratory tract infection and causes discharge from the eyes that is more watery than that of bacterial pink eye. Although these co-occurring illnesses can also be present alongside bacterial pink eye in some cases, the most common partner in crime for bacterial conjunctivitis is an ear infection.
Allergic conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes, and comes with other fun side-effects of allergic reactions, like a sore throat and runny nose. Allergies causing pink eye will usually mean itching -- a lot of itching.
Conjunctivitis caused by irritants may be very localized or broadly affect both eyes, and depending on the irritant itself, can cause varied symptoms including extreme redness, dryness, itching and burning, etc. However, with thorough washing of the eye(s) and a little TLC, chemical- or irritant-related pink eye usually clears up on its own relatively quickly.
How Is It Spread? Who Can Get It?
Adults and children alike are vulnerable to pink eye, but children are more likely to be exposed to infectious types, especially those who regularly attend class in a school environment. Newborns can get pink eye due to blocked tear ducts or infections picked up during or closely following birth.
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both about as contagious as the common cold. Pink eye is spread through direct or indirect contact with fluids from an infected eye. Pink eye may also be contracted alongside colds or other contagious respiratory infections.
Pink eye can be highly contagious for up to two weeks after signs and symptoms first appear. Visiting a doctor is very important when a pink eye infection sets in. Physician-prescribed antibiotics can drastically reduce the infectiousness of pink eye within twenty-four hours, and if you or a member of your family is infected with pink eye, it is important to receive a doctor’s OK before returning to school or work.
Prevention & Treatment
It is important to visit a doctor when pink eye is suspected, especially when the infected individual is a newborn, or has a pre-existing eye condition or compromised immune system. A doctor will be able to determine what type of pink eye has been contracted, and make appropriate recommendations for treatment.
Bacterial pink eye is usually treated with antibiotics or medicated eye drops as prescribed by a physician. Viral pink eye is treated mostly through symptom relief and control, sometimes through eye drops as recommended by a physician, or using other remedies such as cold compresses until the infection clears.
Allergic pink eye can usually be controlled, if necessary, using medicated eye drops or histamine-blocking medications as prescribed by a doctor. Any pink eye caused by other irritants should clear up on its own within 24 hours.
If the symptoms of pink eye persist beyond one or two days after medication, or if there is an onset of pain in the eyes, extreme or continuous blurred vision, or very high sensitivity to light, a second visit to the doctor is in order. These symptoms could be indicators of other, more serious conditions affecting the eye.
Preventing the spread of pink eye mostly involves utilizing good hygiene practices. Someone with pink eye should never touch, scratch, or rub around their eyes – this can worsen the condition and is a prime way to spread the infection to others. And in that same vein, good handwashing can help to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that cause pink eye.
Wash any hand towels, bath towels, washcloths, etc. that may have become contaminated. Changing and washing bedsheets, especially pillowcases, can help to clear up pink eye and prevent its spread from one eye to the other.
If the infected individual wears glasses, it is important to thoroughly clean the glasses as often as possible to prevent the spread of infection. Anyone who wears contacts should stop wearing them immediately when symptoms of pink eye appear, and throw contaminated contacts and solution away.
Eye makeup can also become contaminated if used when infected with pink eye, so it is a good idea not to wear eye makeup when infected, and to throw away any contaminated materials, including applicators and powders.
Keeping the eyes clean and gunk-free accelerates healing and prevents the further spread of contagious types of pink eye. In addition, eye drops should never be used in both an infected and an uninfected eye, even on the same person!
The most important thing a person with pink eye can do to prevent its spread is to stay isolated. Wait for a doctor’s approval to return to the public sphere. Staying at home and making sure not to share any materials, medications, or tools that come in contact with infected eyes or hands is the best way to make sure that pink eye does not move on to a new host.
This year at High Hopes, we've been lucky not to see much conjunctivitis popping up. We're doing everything we can to make sure High Hopes is a pink-eye-free zone. You can be sure we're keeping an eye out for pink eye!
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pink Eye: Usually Mild and Easy to Treat. 19 March 2018. Web. 24 April 2018. <https://www.cdc.gov/features/conjunctivitis/index.html>.
 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Pink eye (conjunctivitis). 2018. Web. 24 April 2018. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pink-eye/symptoms-causes/syc-20376355>.
 National Eye Institute (NEI). Facts About Pink Eye. November 2015. Web. 24 April 2018. <https://nei.nih.gov/health/pinkeye/pink_facts>.