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Understanding the Different Types of Conjunctivitis

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Conjunctivitis (also known as “pink eye”) is a very common condition that impacts an estimated six million people annually in the U.S. Viral conjunctivitis is the most common cause and typically doesn't require treatment. However, bacterial conjunctivitis is the second most common cause of the infection. Most cases are resolved in one to two weeks with medical intervention. 

No matter the cause, it's always critical to visit you eye care professional for a proper diagnosis. While most cases of pink eye are remedied without complication, severe pink eye can result in swelling of the cornea — the clear layer in the front of the eye. Continue reading to learn more about the different types of conjunctivitis. 

What Is Conjunctivitis? 

Conjunctivitis is a condition that causes noticeable redness and swelling of the conjunctiva — the transparent, thin layer of tissue that lines the interior of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. Because of the redness of the eye, conjunctivitis is commonly called "pink eye." 

This condition is very common among children and can affect one or both eyes. While conjunctivitis is considered a minor infection of the eye, it can develop into a more serious problem if left unattended. 

Viral Conjunctivitis 

The most common cause of pink eye is a viral infection. In fact, viral conjunctivitis is usually caused by highly-contagious viruses associated with the common cold. Viral conjunctivitis can be transmitted through exposure to someone with an upper respiratory infection.

Viral conjunctivitis can also occur as the virus makes its way along the body's mucous membranes. These membranes connect the nose, throat, lungs, tear ducts, and then to the conjunctiva. Since tears drain through the nasal passageway, blowing the nose forcefully may help the virus make its way to the individual's eyes.  

How Is Viral Conjunctivitis Treated?

If your patient has viral conjunctivitis, there are no ointments or drops that are capable of curing the condition. Unfortunately, antibiotics are also ineffective against viral conjunctivitis. Similar to the common cold, viral conjunctivitis simply has to run its course, and it can take anywhere from two to three weeks. 

On the other hand, the symptoms of viral conjunctivitis can be alleviated with artificial tear solutions and cool compresses. For worst-case scenarios, a physician may prescribe topical steroids, which can help limit discomfort caused by inflammation, but will not shorten the amount of time for the infection. 

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

The second most common type of pink eye is bacterial conjunctivitis. This type of pink eye is caused usually by streptococcal or staphylococcal from the individual's own respiratory system or skin. The infection can also be transmitted by touching the eye with dirty hands, contact with others who are infected, using contaminated facial lotions or eye makeup, and from insects. 

How Is Bacterial Conjunctivitis Treated?

Bacterial conjunctivitis is commonly treated with antibiotic eye ointments or drops. While the individual's conjunctivitis tends to improve after about day three or four of treatment, it's critical to complete the course of antibiotics to avoid recurrence. 

Allergic Conjunctivitis 

While bacterial and viral pink eye can affect one or both of your patient’s eyes, allergic conjunctivitis always affects both eyes. This type of pink eye is the result of an allergen, such as pollen. When the allergen is introduced, the body creates an antibody called immunoglobulin E.

This antibody then triggers specialized mast cells located in the eye lining and airways to release inflammatory substances, including histamines. The release of histamines can result in several allergic reactions, including conjunctivitis.  

Allergic conjunctivitis is associated with significant tearing, itching, and inflammation. However, the majority of allergic pink eye is easily managed with allergy eye drops. 

Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis

Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis (GPC) is a subtype caused by the chronic presence of an allergen or foreign body in the eye. The people most likely to develop this form of allergic conjunctivitis include:

  • People who wear contact lenses that are not frequently replaced
  • People who have a prosthetic eye
  • Those who have an exposed suture on the surface of the eye.

How Is Allergic Conjunctivitis Treated?

With allergic conjunctivitis, the initial step is to avoid or remove the irritant — if possible. For some patients with mild conjunctivitis, artificial tears and cool compresses may be used to relieve discomfort. In cases that are more severe, a physician may prescribe antihistamines and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. If an individual has persistent conjunctivitis, topical steroid eye drops may be used. 

Ophthalmia Neonatorum

Ophthalmia neonatorum is a very severe type of pink eye that occurs in newborn babies. If not treated immediately, this type of bacterial conjunctivitis can cause permanent eye damage. Ophthalmia neonatorum occurs when a baby is exposed to gonorrhea or chlamydia as they make their way through the birth canal. To prevent conjunctivitis from setting in, delivery rooms in the US have made it a standard practice to apply antibiotic ointment to babies' eyes.

Irritation & Chemical Conjunctivitis 

If the eye has been irritated by a foreign object or chemical splash, it can result in conjunctivitis.  Symptoms and signs of conjunctivitis from irritation can include a mucus discharge and watery eyes. However, these symptoms will typically clear up naturally within a day. 

How Is Chemical Conjunctivitis Treated?

Chemical conjunctivitis may be treated by carefully flushing the eyes with saline. Some cases of chemical conjunctivitis may require topical steroids. However, significant chemical injuries should be treated as a medical emergency because it can lead to damage to the eye, vision complications, or even loss of the eye. 

Questions? Contact Keeler today! 

We have been manufacturing diagnostic ophthalmic equipment for eye care professionals for over 100 years in our vision to contribute to a world without vision loss. We have a large inventory of ultrasonic and diagnostic equipment as well as a pharmaceutical and PPE line. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call our toll free number at 1-800-523-5620 or email us at [email protected].

About the Author Eugene VanArsdale

Eugene is the Director of Marketing Communications at Keeler Instruments. He has been with Keeler since 1982 and is co-holder of two patents for the company. Eugene has a true passion for the eye care industry and has dedicated himself to understanding the ins and outs of the optometric and ophthalmic equipment market.