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By Gracie Bonds Staples

ATLANTA-JOURNAL CONSTITutION

Elizabeth Brockob’s eye was red and hurting, and so, like a lot of us, she went to the Internet for a diagnosis.

Within minutes, the 13-year-old from Johns Creek, Ga., was convinced she was going blind and that she could die.

“It scared me,” Brockob said.

Although she had reason for concern, her diagnosis was dead wrong. The teen had bacterial conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, a common eye disease, especially in children, that may affect one or both eyes.

If recent numbers are any indication, the nasty little infection seems to be on the move, afflicting everyone from toddlers to school-age children, like Brockob, to adults.

The culprit? According to Dr. Glenda Brown, an optometrist with Caris Eye Centers in Alpharetta, Ga., the cold and flu season weakened immune systems.

“We’re all exposed to viruses and bacteria, and if our immunity is down, we can’t fight it off,” she said.

Although Susan Brockob initially believed her daughter might have been guilty of sleeping in her contact lenses again, she knew something was wrong because “Elizabeth doesn’t complain very often.” Plus, the mother of four said, she has come to expect pinkeye to pay the family a visit. Each of her children has had it, and at least one of them more than once.

But be careful about trying to self-diagnose, Brown said.

“There are many other eye problems that mimic pinkeye, and so a lot of eye conditions that patients will refer to as pinkeye are in fact not conjunctivitis,” she said. “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.”

While conjunctivitis is usually a minor eye infection, Brown said that some forms can be highly contagious and develop into a more serious problem, especially if misdiagnosed and treated inappropriately.

Practicing good hygiene is the best way to control the spread of conjunctivitis. Once an infection has been diagnosed, follow these steps:

• Don’t touch your eyes with your hands

• Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently

• Change your towel and washcloth daily, and don’t share them with others

• Discard eye cosmetics, particularly mascara

• Don’t use anyone else’s eye cosmetics or personal eye-care items

• Follow your eye doctor’s instructions on proper contact lens care.