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July 09, 2021

You’ve heard of cold and flu season, but have you ever heard of “pink eye season?” Many people don’t realize that pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is much more common in the winter months. The conjunctiva is the thin layer of tissue that covers the front of your eye, minus the cornea. When the blood vessels in the conjunctiva become inflamed or irritated, the white part of your eye will appear pink, hence the name “pink eye.” As most of you know from experience, symptoms of pink eye can also include itchy, crusty, and teary eyes. This condition is extremely contagious and can make life pretty unbearable, particularly when it’s already cold and miserable outside. If you’ve never been stuck in the house with a bad case of pink eye right before the holidays, count your blessings!

Why Winter?

I was on a fifth grade field trip the first time I got pink eye. We had gone to Jekyll Island in late January and I had roomed with this girl named Heather who, over the course of the weekend, developed the worst case of pink eye you’ve ever seen. We’re talking red, itchy eyes that had sealed shut completely the first morning we were there. After my teachers reassured me that my roomie wasn’t going blind, they asked me to leave the room and went on a Lysol bender— no surface was left untouched! Despite their best efforts, I developed pink eye on the bus ride home. 

So, how did I catch it? Although pink eye can be caused by allergens or irritants, it is most commonly caused by viruses and bacteria. Any teacher will tell you that schools are a cesspit of germs, particularly during the winter months, so taking a big group of coughing, runny-nosed kids on a weekend field trip in the dead of winter was probably their first mistake. Like the cold and flu, conjunctivitis is passed around easily by direct contact or by touching infected surfaces and not washing your hands (alas, the Lysol happened a bit too late in the game). Pink eye is also commonly spread from one eye to the other and by touching your eyes after blowing your nose and not washing your hands. IfCovid-19has taught us anything, it’s the importance of keeping our hands clean and free of harmful viruses and bacteria. 

Another cause of winter spikes may also be our weakened immune systems due to a lack of vitamin D (not many people sunbathe in January). Spending more time indoors can also be problematic when sharing a space with a contagious family member. There is also research to suggest that certain viruses, including the flu, survive and spread more easily in cold and dry air. In one study, researchers found that the majority of infections occur in temperatures below32°F (yet another reason old people move to Florida). Not only that, but studies have shown that lower temperatures also decrease our immune response. Cold, dry air causes the blood vessels in our upper respiratory tract to narrow, preventing white blood cells from reaching the mucous membrane and keeping us healthy. 

How To Prevent Pink Eye All Year Round

Now that we’re coming out of a pandemic, it’s important that we take some of what we learned over the past year and a half and apply it to our daily lives. The things that prevent COVID-19 are the same things that prevent pink eye—wash your hands frequently with soap and water, don’t get up in someone’s business when you’re out and about, avoid touching your face (particularly your eyes), and carry around hand sanitizer when you’re on-the-go. You don’t need to wear a mask, but if you want to be extra safe, keep one on hand for when you’re traveling or when you’re in a heavily crowded area. 

In addition to these steps, consider taking a vitamin D supplement to boost immune support (or eat adiet rich in vitamin D). It’s also important to stay hydrated, get an adequate amount of sleep, keep tissues nearby for coughing and sneezing, and avoid sharing food, drinks, and utensils. 

There are a number of things you can do to prevent the spread of pink eye once you have it (or someone else does). Although allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious, the majority of pink eye cases are viral and bacterial and often occur with other infections. With both viral and bacterial, you may be contagious for up to two weeks after symptoms first appear. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is about 24 to 72 hours. To prevent spreading, or even getting it again, change your pillowcase and sheets every day, use a clean towel every day, toss any contact lenses or makeup that have come into contact with your eyes, and always wash your hands after touching your face. If you have children, keep them home from school, daycare, and friends until they are no longer contagious. 

Symptoms Of Pink Eye

Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis cause redness in the white of the eyes, tearing, itchiness, swelling, burning or irritation, crusting of the eyelids or lashes, and discharge from the eyes. 

Bacterial pink eye often starts with a respiratory or ear infection, affects one or both eyes, and causes a thick, sticky discharge (pus) that makes the eyes stick together. 

Viral pink eye usually starts in one eye but often spreads to the other, commonly starts with a cold, and causes watery discharge. Your doctor will take a sample of the discharge from your eye to determine which type you have.

Treatment For Pink Eye

It’s important to take a trip to your eye doctor the minute you notice symptoms of pink eye.  Because cases of pink eye often appear alongside ear or strep infections, a family doctor might be necessary. If your pink eye is bacterial, you will most likely be treated with antibiotic eye drops, which will shorten the duration of conjunctivitis. Unfortunately, antibiotic eye drops will not help viral or allergic cases. A viral infection simply needs to run its course (up to 2 or 3 weeks), but there are ways to relieve symptoms in the meantime. Your doctor may recommend eye drops, over-the-counter pain relievers, cleaning your eyelids with a wet cloth, and cold or warm compresses. If you wearcontacts, stop wearing them until your treatment is complete. 

If your pink eye is caused by dust or dander, or some other allergen, allergy medicine and eye drops will be used to alleviate symptoms. Irritant conjunctivitis, which can be caused by chemicals, pollutants or foreign objects, will usually clear up on its own when the irritant is no longer present. 

If you or someone in your family has symptoms of pink eye,schedule an appointmenttoday to receive the correct treatment and prevent the infection from spreading. In the meantime, continue practicing proper hygiene and disinfecting surfaces regularly (during every season of the year)!