Many of us will know what it’s like to wake up in the morning with itchy, ‘gritty’-feeling eyes and perhaps the eyelids stuck together. Underneath, the eyelids will be red and inflamed and the whites of the eyes probably bloodshot. Blinking may be painful and bright light distressing.
Conjunctivitis, as this condition is called, is very common and children are particularly prone to it. The symptoms are due to an inflammation of the conjunctiva – the delicate membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the inner surfaces of the upper and lower eyelids. Where the membrane turns back on itself to cover both surfaces of the lids, sacs are formed, and small particles may collect here and irritate the conjunctiva – one cause of conjunctivitis.
Another possible cause is a viral or bacterial infection. Alternatively, the inflammation may be brought on by an allergic reaction – to pollens, animal hairs, cosmetics or the cleansing lotions used for contact lenses, for example.
It’s perhaps surprising that conjunctivitis is not even more common than it is, since the eye is constantly exposed to various irritants and germs. Fortunately, the conjunctival sac is not an ideal breeding ground for germs, partly because of the cleansing effect of tear fluid. If a tear duct is blocked, then inflammation commonly develops and the duct will probably have to be unblocked.
If, as well as being red and sore, the eyes are gummed up with sticky discharge – including perhaps some yellow pus -this usually means that the conjunctivitis is due to a virus or bacteria. The discharge will be particularly noticeable first thing in the morning, having accumulated during the night. The sufferer may also have a cold or other infection such as, in the case of a child, measles. The discharge from the eyes is contagious, so keep handkerchiefs, towels, flannels and pillow cases separate to avoid spreading the germs to others. Your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotic eye drops and/ or ointment to apply several times a day – be sure to wash your hands both before and after doing so. The condition should improve within about four days – if not, referral to an eye specialist may be advised.
Conjunctivitis due to an allergy such as hay fever will usually produce a watery discharge and can often be relieved by special preventive eye drops such as Opticrom, available on prescription, or other soothing eye lotions containing cooling witch-hazel and small amounts of antiseptics. Dark glasses can also help.
Sometimes town-dwellers will suffer from a persistent type of mild though distressing conjunctivitis – known as ‘urban eye’ – caused by irritant fumes and dust. Bathing the eyes twice a day with a solution of one teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda dissolved in one pint of recently boiled and cooled water can relieve the symptoms. Use a separate piece of cotton wool for each eye, bathing the edges of the closed lids, working inwards towards the nose.
It’s best to avoid eye make-up during any attack of conjunctivitis – in fact it’s possible that make-up is the cause. Likewise, if you wear contact lenses, revert to your spectacles while your eyes are inflamed and ask your doctor’s or ophthalmic optician’s advice on future use. And if your eyes become painful or your vision is affected, always consult your doctor without delay. These symptoms could indicate that there was inflammation within the eye and in that case urgent examination and treatment, probably by a specialist, would be required without delay.
Optrex Eye Lotion, Optrex Clearine Eye Drops (for minor eye irritations)