Bacteria are microscopic organisms that replicate all by themselves and don’t need to live in the human body. They are found everywhere and are easily transmitted by people touching surfaces such as tables, computer keyboards and kitchen bench tops, and things like doorknobs, towels and pens.
Before going any further it should be pointed out that not all bacteria are “bad” and that we need “good” bacteria to help our bodies work properly. It has been estimated that only 10% of bacteria fall into the bad category, but unfortunately they can get around a lot!
Not only do we need bacteria in our digestive system for example, but we actually need bacteria near our eyelashes to keep them healthy.
The “bad” bacteria, that is responsible for bacterial conjunctivitis in eyes, is highly infectious. It can easily be spread by the sufferer touching the eyes or whilst asleep, so that both eyes become infected quite quickly.
Remember there are many causes of conjunctivitis – bacterial only being one. Make sure you read the rest of our conjunctivitis series as well.
How it’s Contracted
A person can become infected with bacterial conjunctivitis through close contact with someone already suffering from it, by touching infected surfaces or even from themselves, commonly from a sinus or even ear infection.
Swimming pools are notorious for the spread of a variety of sinus, ear and eye infections, with a shared towel being the culprit.
The main symptom to be noticed (by everyone it seems) is a red or “pink” eye.
Other symptoms include a sticky discharge from the eyes that can become quite nasty and pus like; eyelids can become crusty and it may become difficult to open the eyes in the morning without some kind of washing or treatment.
Once diagnosed the treatment is fairly simple in that bacterial infections can be eliminated by a course of antibiotics applied “topically”, that’s to say on the surface of the infected area, in this case both the eye and the eyelids. The problem may clear by itself within several days, but prescriptions for eye drops and ointments will almost certainly speed recovery.
Occasionally resistant strains of bacteria will not respond to the initial antibiotic used. As long as the cornea (the clear window in front of the coloured part of the eye) is not involved, it is quite reasonable to try something else. If examination reveals the cornea involved, it is important to have the eye swabbed and the sample sent to a laboratory to work out what antibiotics the bacteria are sensitive to. Luckily this is rare.
It is essential that a bacterial conjunctivitis is not misdiagnosed as viral and vice a versa. This is because antibiotics will do no good at all if the conjunctivitis is viral. What is also interesting is that bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children and only represents about 5% of all conjunctivitis.
How NOT to Spread the Infection
It’s VERY important to take steps to ensure that this highly contagious infection doesn’t spread – firstly to an unaffected eye if only one eye is showing symptoms, and secondly to others sharing living space.
Changing towels and pillowcases on a more regular basis is particularly helpful in preventing cross-infection.
School and work present a problem. It is usually advisable to keep a child off school for a few days after starting a course of antibiotic eye drops, but work is another matter since time off for something considered “minor” might not be possible.
Cleanliness and hygiene are important in the work environment, but workmates will no doubt play their part in recovery and prevention of contagion by themselves following a rigorous cleanliness regime, and by keeping well away from their infectious workmate!
Since shaking hands is to be discouraged, a course of action in the workplace would be for the sufferer to avoid meetings and work related social events.