How to tell if your bloodshot eye is conjunctivitis or something a whole lot worse?
You could have a highly contagious viral infection – here's when you need to call in sick
Eye infections are quite common in childhood. But now that you’re an adult, what do you do if your eye is red, watery and itchy. It could be classic case of conjunctivitis, or “pink eye”. But, not necessarily. The symptoms may be caused by epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, a highly contagious adenoviral infection of the eye.
“Only a medical specialist can tell whether you have conjunctivitis or epidemic keratoconjunctivitis,” says Dr Claus Cursiefen, director of the Department of Ophthalmology at Cologne University Hospital in Germany.
Adenoviruses are highly resistant pathogens that can be transmitted by contact with infected objects, including door handles, banisters, grab handles, tables, water taps, computer keyboards, towels, pillows and household appliances. Obviously, you don’t have to put your eye on a doorhandle to get the bug. You can infect yourself if you rub your eye after touching them – or even after shaking someone’s infected hand! This is why God invented fist bumps, right?
“Besides redness, itching and excessive tearing, the lymph nodes in front of the ear become swollen,” says Dr Ludger Wollring, a spokesman for the Professional Association of German Ophthalmologists.
The infection typically begins in one eye and then spreads to the other, and can impair vision for a considerable period of time.
“That’s because not only the conjunctiva [the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids] becomes inflamed, but also the cornea, which then clouds,” explains Cursiefen, who says epidemic keratoconjunctivitis generally heals by itself in about two to four weeks.
There’s no approved therapy to combat the cause of the infection: adenoviruses. And antibiotics don’t work against viruses. So the infection is treated mainly by alleviating the symptoms.
Anti-inflammatory medications such as eyedrops with the immunosuppressant cyclosporin are often prescribed. If the person’s eyes are dry – dryness can cause watery eyes because the eye then produces excess tears – artificial tears or eye ointments can provide relief.
“Infected persons should nurse their infection at home and take sick leave,” Wollring says.
Sufferers typically contagious for two weeks after first showing symptoms, according to Cursiefen, who says they should avoid all public facilities – not least swimming pools, saunas and sports complexes – for the duration of their illness.
He advises them to wash their hands frequently and not to share soap, skin creams or other body care products with others. They should return to work or school only after consultation with a doctor – spending at least two weeks at home is generally recommended.