Monday Medical: Look out for pink eye; practice prevention

This fall, many area schools have been experiencing high rates of children with conjunctivitis, or what is more commonly known as "pink eye."

Pink eye is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inner surface of the eyelids. It is fairly common and typically causes no danger to the eye or your child's vision. The three most common types of conjunctivitis are viral, allergic and bacterial. Each requires a different treatment.

Viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious, which is why it is spread easily through schools. Students, faculty and parents are susceptible to pink eye. Viral conjunctivitis frequently is associated with an upper respiratory tract infection, cold or sore throat. The eye has watery discharge and is red or pink in appearance.

The infection typically begins in one eye and can spread easily to the other eye. Like the common cold, there is no cure for viral conjunctivitis; however, the symptoms can be relieved with cool compresses and artificial tears (drops found in most pharmacies). In a severe case, a physician may prescribe topical steroid drops to reduce discomfort and inflammation.

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs more frequently among children who have allergic conditions such as hay fever. It is often seen only at certain times of year, especially when caused by allergens such as grass or ragweed pollen. Other allergy-causing substances such as animal dander or dust mites can cause year-round symptoms of conjunctivitis.

Allergic conjunctivitis typically affects both eyes, causing itching, tearing and swollen eyelids. Applying cool compresses and artificial tears sometimes relieves discomfort. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and antihistamines may be prescribed, as well as topical steroid drops.

With bacterial conjunctivitis, there may be thick white, yellow or green discharge coming from the eye. The discharge may cause the eyelids to stick together, especially after sleeping. Redness, tearing, irritation or a gritty feeling as if there is sand in the eye are also common symptoms. It typically affects one eye, but it may easily spread to the other eye. This type of pink eye often is treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments that cover a broad range of bacteria.

To prevent infectious conjunctivitis, teach children to wash their hands thoroughly and often with warm, soapy water. Children also should avoid sharing eye drops, tissues, washcloths, towels or pillowcases with other people.

If your child has pink eye, and it has been confirmed by a healthcare provider, encourage your child to not touch the infected area. If the eyes are touched, ask your child to wash his or her hands.

Parents should be sure to wash their hands thoroughly after touching a child's eyes. Throw away items such as gauze or cotton balls after they have been used. Wash towels and other linen your child has used in hot water separately from the rest of the family's laundry to avoid contamination.

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