Conjunctivitis, as with most other 'tis' words (meningitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis) is an inflammation, in this case, of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the clear membrane that covers the white of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids.
Conjunctivitis is a common condition with many different causes, such as bacteria, viruses and allergies, and, less commonly, fungi and parasites. 'Abuse of contact lens wear and poor hygiene are big no-nos,' says Gordon Burnham-King, president of the South African Optometric Association.
'Children, the elderly and contact lens wearers are the most susceptible. If there is a bout of conjunctivitis going round, become obsessive-compulsive about washing your hands, and don't dry them or your face on a towel that anyone else has used. Stress, fatigue, illness or any other condition where the immune system is challenged would leave you more vulnerable.'
The most common symptoms are a red eye and discomfort, itchiness or pain. As this is common in a number of other conditions, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis.
'This is important, as it doesn't help, for example, to treat a bacterial conjunctivitis as viral, or vice versa,' says Gordon. 'You will also be asked all sorts of questions: When did it start? What do you feel? What sort of gunk is coming out of the eye? The eye will be closely looked at to determine the specific pattern of the redness and whether there are any bumps under the lids. In certain cases, samples of the discharge from the eye are sent to a lab to determine the exact cause.'
Some of the bugs that cause conjunctivitis are fairly tame and will go away without any intervention, but others are more vicious and can leave the eye with permanent scarring or even blindness within 24 hours. As a rule of thumb, unless the symptoms are mild and resolve quickly (within 12 hours) without recurring, consult with your eyecare practitioner pronto.
Treatment is usually in the form of eye drops or eye ointment. These may be antibiotic, steroid or cortisone, or as mild as artificial tears. In certain severe cases, oral medication may be necessary. For people who suffer from an intolerance to wheat or dairy, removing them from the diet may do the trick.
A floral alternative
Bach flower remedies were created to change negative thoughts to positive ones. This has an indirect effect on the body through the mental state we're in, explains homeopath Dr Laura Nordling, who has 30 years experience in using the remedies.
'For eye infections, including conjunctivitis, I recommend that people make eye drops using water and a few drops of two remedies,' she explains.
'It's vitally important that the remedy be sterile, so you should start with a clean 30ml eye drop bottle from the pharmacy. Rinse it with hot water from the kettle – not boiling water, as the glass may crack. Then fill the bottle with cooled boiled water. Add four drops of Bach Rescue Remedy and two drops of Bach Crab Apple.
This is great for infections, and can be used for any situation where you feel dirty. Allow the liquid to cool completely before using it.' You can use one drop of this liquid in the infected eye every 15 to 20 minutes and it will soothe irritation and also help it to heal.
The Bach remedies can be used alongside any antibiotics or other medications you're using. The remedy is safe for children, who often catch infections from each other, and also for the elderly.