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Pinkeye contagious, usually viral

By: James Hubbard Special to The Gazette
February 25, 2014

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, provided so many great memories - from the spectacle of the opening ceremonies to the heartwarming stories of the athletes. It also offered quite possibly the most famous case of pinkeye ever.

Eye troubles pushed NBC announcer Bob Costas from the anchor chair for a week during the middle of the Games. Costas had anchored the Olympics without fail since 1992 and told the New York Times the last time he remembers an illness keeping him off the air was in 1990 when he had food poisoning.

Pinkeye finally got him.

So what is this seemingly minor infection that brought down the iron man of Olympics coverage?

Pinkeye is an extremely contagious infection. Anytime people are bunched together, such as in an office or school, it takes only one person to spread the infection throughout the building. That person touches the infected eye and then an object. Another person touches the object and then around the eye. Voila, pinkeye has spread.

With pinkeye, the conjunctiva (lining over the eyeball) becomes red and swollen. In addition, though we didn't see this on air with Costas, the eye tends to ooze yellow or green stuff, like an infected wound sometimes will. The matter then dries into a crust, which can cause the eyelids to stick together, especially upon waking. You can remove the crust gently with a warm, wet cloth. But be sure to use the cloth only once, washing it with hot water and bleach afterward.

Costas' infection started in one eye and spread to the other. I'm not sure of the exact statistics, but I usually tell my patients they have a 50-50 chance of the infection affecting both eyes. You can try to prevent the spread by not touching around your eyes, but that's difficult to do.

If you contract pinkeye, you must remove your contacts. Throw them away and don't put in new ones until the infection has cleared. That's why Costas was wearing glasses. I'd also suggest staying away from eye makeup until better.

The official word behind Costas' absence was the bright lights made his eyes hurt. While this is a common symptom and a viable reason to turn the duties over to someone else, I suspect another factor was to keep Costas isolated. Every time he touched a computer, doorknob or phone, he ran the risk of leaving a few germs behind.

Pinkeye can linger, as was demonstrated with Costas' lengthy departure. It's usually caused by a virus, which has to run its course. That can take seven days or longer - sometimes two or three weeks.

However, simply because pinkeye is usually viral doesn't mean it's always viral. It can be caused by bacteria or even fungi that can severely damage your vision.

Two of the warning signs that you need to see a doctor right away are vision loss (not just a film over your eyes that you can wash away) and severe pain.


Hubbard is a family doctor who teaches how to survive during disasters or any time you can't get expert medical help at

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