Cold and flu season brings a rash of pinkeye

ATLANTA – Elizabeth Brockob’s eye was red and hurting, and so, like a lot of us, she went to the Internet for a diagnosis.

Within minutes the 13-year-old from Johns Creek, Ga., was convinced she was going blind and that she could die.

“It scared me,” Brockob said.

Although she had reason for concern, her diagnosis was dead wrong.

The teen had bacterial conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, a common eye disease, especially in children, that may affect one or both eyes.

If recent numbers are any indication, the nasty little infection seems to be on the move, afflicting everyone from toddlers to school-age children, like Brockob, to adults.

The culprit? According to Dr. Glenda Brown, an optometrist with Caris Eye Centers in Alpharetta, Ga., and incoming president of the Georgia Optometric Association, it is a brutal cold and flu season that is weakening immune systems.

“We’re all exposed to viruses and bacteria, and if our immunity is down, we can’t fight it off,” she said.

Since the flu season began, Brown said her practice has seen a 30 percent increase in pinkeye diagnoses – from 222 patients last year to 289 so far this year.

“That’s huge,” she said.

Although Susan Brockob initially believed her daughter might have been guilty of sleeping in her contact lenses again, she knew something was wrong because “Elizabeth doesn’t complain very often.”

But be careful about trying to self-diagnose, Brown said.

“There are many other eye problems that mimic pinkeye, and so a lot of eye conditions that patients will refer to as pinkeye are in fact not conjunctivitis,” she said. “We get twice as many people who call thinking they have it, when they actually have something else. But the only way to be sure is to see an eye doctor who can evaluate you with a slit lamp bio-microscope, make the proper diagnosis and prescribe a course of treatment.”

While conjunctivitis is usually a minor eye infection, Brown said that some forms can be highly contagious and develop into a more serious problem, especially if misdiagnosed and treated inappropriately.

Conjunctivitis is the most common type and can be caused by viruses associated with the common cold and flu.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection most often caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from your own skin or respiratory system.

And allergic conjunctivitis occurs more commonly among people who already have seasonal allergies but can be caused by other allergens.

“Many people think it goes away on its own, and often parents don’t understand the damage it can do,” Brown said. “For instance, an eye infection caused by the same virus that causes cold sores, if not treated properly, can cause scarring, greatly reduced vision, and even in some cases necessitate corneal transplant surgery.”

For most, pinkeye is an inconvenience.

But for some people, the condition is far worse.

“One of my patients recently diagnosed with EKC, epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, was home in bed for a whole week,” Brown said.

EKC is a highly contagious form of conjunctivitis often found in emergency rooms, nursing homes, schools and child-care centers.

Controlling pinkeye

Practicing good hygiene is the best way to control the spread of conjunctivitis. Once an infection has been diagnosed, follow these steps:

• Don’t touch your eyes with your hands.

• Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.

• Change your towel and washcloth daily, and don’t share them with others.

• Discard eye cosmetics, particularly mascara.

• Don’t use anyone else’s eye cosmetics or personal eye-care items.

• Follow your eye doctor’s instructions on proper contact lens care.

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