published Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Why we're in the pink: Pinkeye outbreak attributed to a tough cold, flu season

WAYS TO PREVENT PINKEYE

• Wash hands often with soap and warm water; if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

• Wash discharge around the eyes several times a day; Hands should be washed first, then a clean washcloth or fresh cotton ball can be used to cleanse the eye area. Throw away cotton balls after use; if a washcloth is used, it should be washed with hot water and detergent; wash hands with soap and warm water when done.

• Avoid touching or rubbing eyes.

• Wash hands after applying eyedrops or ointment.

• Do not use the same eyedrop dispenser/bottle for infected and non-infected eyes, even for the same person.

• Wash pillowcases, sheets, washcloths and towels in hot water and detergent; hands should be washed after handling such items.

• Avoid sharing articles like towels, blankets and pillowcases.

• Clean eyeglasses, being careful not to contaminate items (like towels) that might be shared by others.

• Do not share eye makeup, face makeup, makeup brushes, contact lenses and containers or eyeglasses.

• Do not use swimming pools.

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Pinkeye, like a piece of gossip, can spread before the subject knows what's hit him.

"It can be regional," says Logan Boss, public information officer for Northwest Georgia Public Health. "Like any number of infectious [diseases], you can see it flash through closed communities such as schools or day cares."

Pinkeye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a contagious inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin clear tissue that lies over the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. Causing a pink or red color on the white of the eye(s), a discharge, scratchiness, swelling or a crusting of the eyelids or eyelashes, it has been an issue over the last few months in Tennessee and Georgia.

The problem was so bad in early winter, the Tennessee Department of Health issued a warning to health care providers. The warning, says Mark Kapperman, an optometrist with Kapperman and White Eyecare on Gunbarrel Road, stated there was "almost an epidemic level" of cases.

While his practice saw a few more than normal, "we weren't overloaded," he says.

The cause for any increase, according to Dr. Glenda Brown, incoming president of the Georgia Optometric Association, is the brutal cold and flu season that has weakened immune systems.

"We're all exposed to viruses and bacteria," she says, "and if our immunity is down, we can't fight it off."

Although Boss says anecdotal evidence reported to Northwest Georgia Public Health's epidemiologist did not suggest an above-average year for the infection, Brown says her Alpharetta Caris Eye Centers practice saw a 30-percent increase in pinkeye diagnosis -- from 222 patients in 2012 to 289 so far this year.

"That's huge," she says.

Closer to Chattanooga, Denise Q. Shepherd, an optometrist on Battlefield Parkway in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., says she's seen a slight increase in the viral form of the infection. In an unusual twist, she says, she has seen more adults with it than children. Perhaps parents are taking their children to a pediatrician

for pinkeye treatment, but going to their optometrist to treat their own, she says.

Marissa Brower, spokeswoman for Catoosa County Schools, says incidents of pinkeye in her system are about the same this winter as in the past.

Kapperman says one of the problems with the most common viral conjunctivitis, which is contagious through the air, is it's often mistaken for something else. So a child with the infection returns to the classroom, "and before the end of the week everybody gets it," he says.

"There are many other eye problems that mimic pinkeye," says Brown, "and so a lot of eye conditions that patients will refer to as pinkeye are in fact not conjunctivitis. We get twice as many people who call thinking they have it, when they actually have something else. But the only way to be sure is to see an eye doctor who can evaluate you with a slit lamp bio-microscope, make the proper diagnosis and prescribe a course of treatment."

Although some of the symptoms of actual conjuctivitis can be treated with drops, like a cold "it pretty much has to run its course," he says.

Pinkeye might also manifest itself in swollen lymph nodes, upper respiratory problems that mimic a cold or the flu, and a low-grade fever, optometrists say.

In addition to viral conjunctivitis, people also can have allergic conjunctivitis, which is more common with people who already have seasonal allergies. Bacterial conjunctivitis, meanwhile, is an infection most often caused by staph or strep bacteria from the patient's skin or respiratory system. No matter the type, Kapperman says, it can begin in one eye and move into the other.

The best way to prevent any type of conjunctivitis, says Boss, is not to touch your eyes.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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