Pinkeye is not as harmless as it sounds

September 12, 2018

Q. Pop-Pop, don't feel bad that you gave me a cold in my eye. It wasn't your fault ... was it?

This question came from my granddaughter, Maggie. She got conjunctivitis – known colloquially as “pinkeye” – a week after I did. Subsequently, Maggie's mother and grandmother also got nasty cases that required multiple visits to an ophthalmologist.

Conjunctivitis is an infection of the transparent membrane (conjunctiva) that lines the eyelid and part of the eyeball. The infection creates swelling of the eyelids and a reddening of the whites of the eyes.

Pinkeye is caused by bacteria, viruses, and allergens such as pollen. Pinkeye from bacteria and viruses can be highly contagious for as long as two weeks after symptoms begin. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

In addition to swelling and discoloration, pinkeye also makes your eyes itch and water. Often, you feel like you have sand or an eyelash caught in your eye. The infection clouds your vision. When you sleep, a crust forms on your eye and makes it difficult to open. Your eyes become light sensitive.

My experience with pinkeye should be instructive.

I am allergic to all kinds of pollen. These allergies usually irritate my eyes, especially in the fall. When I had mild symptoms recently, I assumed it was the pollen in the air. I exposed everyone in my family before my eye worsened and I discovered I had a viral infection. If I had gone to a doctor immediately for a diagnosis, I might have been able to prevent the infection from spreading by being more careful about contact.

Next time I have any kind of watery, itchy eyes, I will be much more careful. Sorry, Maggie.

My family physician gave me antibiotic eye drops in case the infection was bacterial. I was instructed to see an ophthalmologist in two days if there was no improvement, which would indicate that I had a viral infection. My eye didn't get better, so I went to an ophthalmologist who gave me steroid eye drops to help relieve the symptoms. Only time corrects viral conjunctivitis – two to three weeks.

Maggie had a minor case of pinkeye that disappeared in days. Her mother and grandmother suffered the way I did. Pinkeye has a quaint name, but it doesn't describe what the adults in my family contracted. The three of us looked like we had been repeatedly jabbed in the face by Muhammad Ali. My left eye was so bad that it made my ophthalmologist actually say, “Yuck.”

While suffering from pinkeye, there are ways to deal with the symptoms. Warm compresses help if you have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis. Cool compresses are better for allergic conjunctivitis. Non-prescription artificial tears are soothing.

To prevent the spread of pinkeye, wash your hands often and avoid contact with others. Don't share washcloths or towels. Change your pillowcase often.

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