The Scoop on Pink Eye
Credit: Drx | Dreamstime

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

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

Answer: This question came from my seven-year-old granddaughter, Maggie. She got conjunctivitis—known colloquially as "pink eye"—a week after I did. Subsequently, Maggie's mother and grandmother also developed 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 causes swelling of the eyelids and a reddening of the whites of the eyes.

Pink eye is caused by bacteria, viruses and allergens, such as pollen. Pink eye 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, pink eye makes eyes itch and water. Often, you feel like you have sand or an eyelash trapped in your eye. The infection clouds your vision. As you sleep, a crust forms on your eye, making it difficult to open in the morning. Your eyes become light sensitive.

My experience with pink eye should be instructive.

I am allergic to all kinds of pollen. These allergies usually irritate my eyes, especially during the fall. When I had mild symptoms recently, I attributed them to pollen. When my symptoms worsened, I discovered I actually had a viral infection. By then, I had exposed everyone in my family to it. If I had gone to a doctor immediately, I might have been able to prevent the infection from spreading.

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

My family physician prescribed antibiotic eye drops in case the infection was bacterial. I was instructed to see an ophthalmologist within two days if my symptoms didn't improve. That would indicate a viral infection. My eye didn't get better, so I went to an ophthalmologist who prescribed steroid eye drops to relieve the symptoms. Only time—two to three weeks—resolves viral conjunctivitis.

Maggie had a minor case of pink eye that disappeared within days. Pink eye has a quaint name, but it doesn't describe what the adults in my family went through. The three of us looked as though we had been repeatedly jabbed in the face by Muhammad Ali. My left eye was so bad that my ophthalmologist actually said, "Yuck."

Pink eye is annoying, but there are ways to deal with the symptoms. Warm compresses ease viral and bacterial conjunctivitis. Cool compresses are better for allergic conjunctivitis. Non-prescription artificial tears are soothing.

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

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