[“Common College” is a twice a month column on medical issues particularly pertinent to college students, ranging from infectious disease to mental illness. This information is not meant to be used in place of a doctor’s care.]
Pink eye often puts its victims, and those around them, on red alert. Whether it’s a hazy morning discovery of an eye crusted shut, or a glance in the mirror any time of the day to reveal a sickly pink overtaking the whites of the eyes, there are few things more frustrating than the rapid progression and irritating symptoms of conjunctivitis.
While pink eye is a distinctly recognizable condition, it’s caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and other irritants. Regardless of the cause of the illness, the conjunctiva, a thin layer of tissue covering the whites of the eyes and the eyelid, becomes inflamed. This inflammation leads to the characteristic symptoms of redness, itchiness, and eye discharge.
The most common cause of viral conjunctivitis is adenovirus, although other virus types can also infect and inflame the conjunctiva. Many of these viruses also cause respiratory infections like the cold or flu. Viral pink eye is often characterized by a more watery discharge, and typically begins in one eye and spreads to the other. Infections can last anywhere from a few days to up to two weeks. These infections are typically mild, and may not need a doctor’s treatment. However, if any of the common symptoms are severe, such as a extreme redness or pain, or patients develop blurred vision or light sensitivity, individuals should visit the doctor for evaluation and treatment. Otherwise, treatment is often symptom relief, and eye drops or cool ice packs to reduce itchiness may be recommended.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is similar to viral, except the discharge is often thicker. It may also happen in conjunction with an ear infection. While a mild bacterial pink eye infection may get better on its own, doctors can also prescribe antibiotics, either in the form of a topical cream or eye drops, to reduce the length of the illness and prevent the spread of bacteria.
Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are highly infectious, and spread quickly between individuals. The best way to prevent spreading pink eye if infected is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your eyes. The same goes for those hoping to avoid an infection. Never share makeup, contacts, or towels with someone suffering from conjunctivitis, and those suffering from it should toss their makeup and used contact lenses to avoid reinfection.
Although many bacterial pink eyes are not dangerous, it is worth noting important exceptions. The bacteria that cause gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause pink eye, and these infections can be more severe, particularly in newborns. In sexually active adults, more severe cases of pink eye are often caused by the bacteria that causes gonorrhea. This infection is often characterized by a large amount of green-yellow discharge, and individuals should see a doctor quickly for this form of pink eye.
Non-infectious pink eye is often caused by allergies. This form of pink eye normally appears in both eyes simultaneously, and antihistamines or other allergy-management medications will resolve the redness. Contact lenses can also cause this form of conjunctivitis, in which case it’s important to visit your optometrist to discuss symptom management or alternatives.
While pink eye is an unfortunate and highly contagious illness, it rarely causes serious complications when symptoms are mild. Still, it’s always good to wash your hands if your roommate has come down with pink eye, otherwise it will likely turn into a case of many pink eyes.
“Common College” will return next fall. Until then, stay healthy and remember to wash your hands.
Reach Science Editor Emma Bueren at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EmBueren