Conjunctivitis, or “pink eye”. Is it serious?

Conjunctivitis is a condition where the white portion of the eye appears pink or red.  There is often an accompanied discharge, tearing and irritation.  Conjunctivitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses, allergies or systemic disease.  The types caused by bacteria and viruses could be highly contagious.  For that reason, most school nurses will question if a child with a red eye should be in school.  Hand washing is the most important preventive measure of infection.

Allergic conjunctivitis is often misconstrued as an infection.  Many children in the fall and spring present with this problem.  The red eye is accompanied by itching and tearing.  Many boys get a more severe allergy called Vernal conjunctivitis.  There is a higher prevalence of this entity in the Spring.  The eye is very itchy and has an accompanied swelling that looks like jelly-like deposits in the white part of the eye.  This type of conjunctivitis is treated with allergy eyedrops with an anti-histamine and mast-cell stabilizer.  Mast cells are cells that produce histamine.  Frequently, vernal conjunctivitis is treated with steroid eyedrops as well.  Frequent follow-up exams are important as steroid eyedrops have the potential of causing high pressures in the eyes.

Patients with auto-immune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis can present with a red eye.  Adults with auto-immune conditions can present with pain and sensitivity to light.  These patients oftentimes have a condition called iritis which can caused long-term scarring if left untreated.

Babies can present with tearing and discharge, without redness.  This is most likely a congenital blocked tear duct.  Many blockages resolve on their own but some require surgical correction.

Patients with a red eye could also have a foreign body in the eye, glaucoma, dry eye and corneal infection.  For this reason, if you or your child has a red eye, it is very important that the eyes be examined as soon as possible.

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