How Contagious is Pink Eye?

Pink Eye: The Dreaded Condition that Keeps Kids and Parents and Bob Costas at Home

In February, the 2014 Winter Olympics filled the headlines of major papers and news stations.  But perhaps more memorable than the yellow tap water of Sochi Hotels or the white snow on the ski slopes, were the Pink Eyes of NBC Olympic host Bob Costas.  Costas began broadcasting with one pink eye, and within 2 days, developed the same condition in his other eye.

All parents know that even whispering the words “pink eye” inside of a school will get you a one-way ticket to the nurse’s office and probably a cab ride home! But is pink eye really that bad, and is it really that contagious? The answer is Yes AND No. It depends on which kind of pink eye we’re talking about.

Anatomy 101: Pink Eye : The technical name for Pink Eye is Conjunctivitis, and it means Inflammation of the Conjunctiva. The firm outer wall of the eyeball that appears white is called the sclera. The sclera is covered with a thin, clear membrane called the conjunctiva. There are several things that can cause the conjunctiva to become inflamed, swollen, or red. Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, Parasites, Contact Lens over-wear, Allergy and Autoimmune conditions are the most commonly mentioned causes of inflammation. The treatment for each of these causes varies widely, making the correct diagnosis critical.

Who Done it? : You might be surprised to hear that approximately 60% of cases of pink eye are caused by a virus. This means that the strongest antibiotic in the world (designed to kill bacteria) is completely useless in the treatment of viral pink eye. You may in fact leave your eye doctor’s office without a prescription for drops if a viral infection is the cause of your pink eye, as many viruses (just like the common cold) must simply run their course and be defeated by your immune system. Behind a microscope, all pink eye does not look the same, and certainly all symptoms are not the same. Your primary care doctor or pediatrician can prescribe drops, but a magnified examination of the eye really tells the true story as to the cause of the inflammation and the appropriate treatment. Your eye doctor has the equipment to closely examine the eye and make the proper diagnosis.

How Contagious is it? : The most dreaded and contagious cause of pink eye is a virus. It is a specific strain of the Adenovirus, the virus that causes the common cold, which rapidly spreads from one eye to the other, and from one person to another. It can travel on water droplets in the air, but most commonly spreads by touch via tears and mucus. Hand washing is critical! For women wearing cosmetics, discontinuing the use of cosmetics and discarding any wet eye makeup (liquid eyeliner, mascara, foundation sponges) is required. The condition is contagious as long as the eye is red and watering. Other infectious causes of pink eye are not as easily spread, and allergic or inflammatory contact lens causes are not at all contagious.

Treatment : The greatest threat that conjunctivitis poses to us is scarring. Why? Because conjunctivitis that goes untreated leads to inflammation and scarring of the cornea, and scarring of the cornea (the clear window of the eye) leads to permanent vision loss. It’s important to receive the appropriate treatment for pink eye as soon as possible, to lessen the risk for sight-threatening complications. If you have symptoms that include reduced vision, light sensitivity, or eye pain, it’s critical that you schedule an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as possible, as these symptoms could indicate a greater likelihood of corneal involvement.

The bottom line is that pink eye is a problem that eye doctors solve best, and the sooner the proper diagnosis is made, the lower the risk for serious complications, and the lower the number of people in your house walking around with pink eyes!


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