Common College: Conjunctivitis

The University of Washington –  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.

[“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.] 

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