Sometimes known as 'pink eye', conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the eye's protective outer covering. In this common condition, the eye becomes red, sore, feels gritty and may have a discharge.
Conjunctivitis can be caused by an infection or an allergy, a chemical or drug, or exposure to ultraviolet rays, therapeutic lamps or even the reflected glare from snow.
Allergic conjunctivitis is often triggered by hayfever, the dander of animals, mascara, contact lens cleaning solutions or, very occasionally, food.
The infected variety infective conjunctivitis can arise from an infection picked up in an inadequately chlorinated swimming pool, or appear at the same time as a cold or other infection such as measles. It is usually spread by hand to mouth contact (often in children) or by viruses associated with colds, sore throats or an illness such as measles.
In conventional medicine, infective conjunctivitis is usually treated with eyedrops or an ointment containing an antibiotic drug. Chloramphenicol (Chloromycetin or Sno Phenicol) is a commonly prescribed broad spectrum antibacterial and the first drug of choice for most GPs for any superficial eye infection bacterial or otherwise. It is applied topically as an ointment or as eyedrops.
Manufacturers of this drug have disclosed that, on rare occasions, it can cause aplastic anaemia. Although the incidence of this happening is supposedly rare, the disease is very serious indeed (there is a significant reduction in red blood cell producing marrow elements).
Nevertheless, GPs are somewhat cavalier about prescribing this drug for simple infective conjunctivitis, particularly as many cases of the condition being caused by viruses will not respond to it.
Simpler and safer treatments abound in alternative medicine.
For babies, the folk medicine approach is to bathe the eyes in milk, preferably breastmilk if available (the second choice is goat's milk)
Mixing one drop of Euphrasia officinalis (eyebright) extract with an egg cupful of cooled boiled water and applying it with an eye bath or a dropper will usually help adults. When treating children, diluted Euphrasia extract should be applied with cottonwool
Dr Alfred Vogel, in his book The Nature Doctor (Main Stream Publishing, 1996) suggests applying the white of an egg to your eye (assuming you are not allergic to eggs)
Take beta carotene (4 mg per 30 cm of height) in divided doses throughout the day (J Nutr Environ Med, 1995; 5: 235-42)
For rhinovirus infection involving the conjunctiva, take zinc gluconate lozenges that contain 23 mg of elemental zinc, every two hours while you're awake (J Antimicrob Chemother, 1997; 40: 483-93).
Rhus tox 6CH twice daily, if your eyes are sensitive to light and there is pustular inflammation
Staphysagria 3CH twice daily, for recurrent styes and where pronounced heat is felt in the eyeballs
Arsenicum alb 12CH twice daily, for acrid tearful discharge and oedema around the eyes
Aconite 6CH twice daily, for grittiness and profuse watering of the eyes, vertigo, and when the eyelids are swollen, hard and very red
Mercurius 12CH twice daily, if you have black 'floaters', after exposure to ultraviolet light and when there is a profuse, burning discharge with thick, swollen lids (Boericke W, Pocket Manual of Homoeopathic Materia Medica, 9th ed, Boericke & Tafel, 1927).
Medical herbalists usually suggest applying warm compresses of Euphrasia rostkoviana (another species of the eyebright plant) extract, the extract made from Arctium lappa (burdock as the herb, not the root) or Calendula officinalis (marigold) as an eye lotion.
Remember: never use straight herbal tinctures in the eye.
You can also take immune boosting herbs such as garlic or Echinacea (Planta Medica, 1973; 23: 324).
Make sure you consult a qualified health professional if conjunctivitis lasts for more than 48 hours, whenever there is a thick discharge, if vision is affected or if the light hurts the eyes.
Harald Gaier is a registered osteopath, naturopath and homoeopath.