By Dr. P. A. Spear TORONTO EYE CLINIC
Your parents called it "pink-eye", the doctor called it conjunctivitis and it usually meant you stayed home until the infection cleared.
Pink-eye is an inflammation of the conjunctive (hence, "conjunctivitis") that's usually caused by a virus, bacteria or allergy. The conjunctive is a mucous membrane covering the white surface of the eye (sclera) and lines the inside of the eyelids (see illustration).
No doubt given the name by observation, "pink-eye" inflammations turn the conjunctive reddish pink, producing symptoms such as scratchiness, grittiness, occasionally pain and usually a discharge - tearing or puss - that leaves eyelids "crusty" and stuck together in the morning.
Bacterial pink-eye, which usually produces a mucous discharge, can occur at any age, but is most common among children who regularly forget to wash their hands.
Viral pink-eye produces a more watery discharge, is slightly more common in adults, and is usually associated with the flu virus that's also giving you a sore throat. To make matters worse, many viral infections have a "secondary" bacterial component, so eyes that are watery by day, discharge mucous during sleep - result: crusty morning eyes.
Pink-eye caused by allergy usually produces itchy, puffy, swollen eyes and only occurs during certain times of the year (as in ragweed season) or when you go near something your immune system doesn't like - cat fur or horse hair, for example.
You can treat bacterial or viral pink-eye yourself with warm water compresses every few hours, but keeping the eyelids clean is the most important thing to remember. If you wear contact lens, remove them until the infection clears. Conjunctivitis usually gets better all by itself within a few days, but if the infection persists or your eyes become painful, vision changes or discharges become excessive, see your doctor.
For bacterial pink-eye, doctors often prescribe antibiotic drops and ointments that soothe the discomfort and stop the infection from spreading. Viral conjunctivitis has no treatment, but warm compresses often help while your immune system overcomes the virus. For allergic pink-eye, doctors may recommend antihistamines and cold compresses. It's helpful to identify what's causing your allergy if you don't already know.
Just remember, bacterial or viral pink-eye infections spread easily when an infected person touches the discharge and then another person or object, so avoid rubbing your eyes, wash your hands often and don't share towels or washcloths. Although pink-eye is often minor, it may result from trauma or underlying illness, so see your doctor if symptoms persist. Finally, remember mom knew best. Kids with pink-eye should stay at home until the discharge subsides!