The conjunctiva is the white tissue covering the outside of your eyeball. Conjunctivitis occurs when this white tissue becomes irritated, red and inflamed. There are many causes of conjunctivitis including allergies, contact lenses, eye infections, and even certain systemic infections. Patients with conjunctivitis may be light sensitive and complain of red, itchy, watery eyes.
Allergic conjunctivitis most commonly occurs with seasonal allergies. Others may be allergic to something that was inadvertently placed around the eye (make-up, lotion, fabric detergent, or even other eye drops). Itching is always a prominent symptom with allergic conjunctivitis. Treatment includes removing the offending agent, over the counter medications or prescription allergy drops. Click here to learn more about ocular allergies.
Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC), is a subcategory of allergic conjunctivitis that refers to an allergic response secondary to protein build-up on contact lenses. This is most commonly found in patients who sleep in their contacts or fail to thoroughly clean them. Patients often present with contact lens intolerance, foreign body sensation, excess mucus production, and itching. Treatment is a combination of discontinuing all contact lens wear and prescription eye drops. It has an excellent prognosis. Long term management often involves limiting contact lens wear and changing to daily disposable lenses.
Viral conjunctivitis, most commonly referred to as ‘pink eye,’ occurs when a virus infects the conjunctiva. This is very common following a recent cold or the flu. Depending on the type of virus, most patients are very contagious since the watery discharge can transmit the infection to other individuals or from one eye to another. Hand washing and avoiding touching your eyes is extremely important in preventing the infection from spreading to others. Typically, viral conjunctivitis goes away on its own after 10 to 14 days. Your eye doctor may recommend an in-office treatment involving an eyewash to speed up the recovery and decrease the risk of being contagious. Antibiotic or steroid drops are sometimes prescribed to aid in healing and patient discomfort.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in the elderly, young children, or parents of young children. Discharge with bacterial conjunctivitis is often very thick and yellow and may exist with other eye conditions such as a corneal ulcer. Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic eye drops.
It can be difficult at times to distinguish between viral and bacterial conjunctivitis. This is important since bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics whereas viral infections are not. Some serious eye problems, such as a corneal ulcer or acute glaucoma, may mimic pink eye symptoms. Furthermore, conjunctivitis may indicate certain systemic problems or infections such as chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, or Steven-Johnson syndrome. This is why eye doctors should be the only healthcare professionals to manage patients with an acute red eye.