Pink Eye Emerges During Midterm Stress

By Middlebury Campus

Forty-eight cases of conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye,” affected many members of the Middlebury College community in March. Although contraction of the ocular disease is not new to the College and the scale of its spread is minor compared to recent outbreaks at Dartmouth College and Princeton University, this number is considered high. Lower levels of resistance among the student body, caused by high stress levels and unstable weather in the period before Spring Break, are likely to have contributed to the extent of contagion.

Administrative Director of the Parton Health Center Kathleen Ready said that the Health Center saw “three to five cases [of conjunctivitis] a day from about March 13 to March 22.”

She added that the outbreak was “not expected, but not really surprising either,” considering that the College has had numerous incidents of pink eye in previous years. She said the ailment could come from anywhere and was probably contracted from many different places. Viruses or bacteria can reach the eye via contaminated towels or washcloths, hands, makeup, false eyelashes or contact lenses that have been worn for an extended period of time. As Middlebury students are in close contact with one another on a residential campus, it is not surprising that the likelihood of contamination here is high, Ready continued.

The period immediately before Spring Break, when the frequency of contraction was highest, was a “high pressure time,” Ready noted. “People are trying to finish their work. They’re staying up late.” She also mentioned the variable weather conditions during that time. All of these factors contributed to lowering students’ levels of resistance to ailments such as conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis refers to an inflammation of the membrane covering the eye and lining the eyelid’s inner surface and usually lasts from a few days to two weeks. Its symptoms are redness, itching, swollen eyelids, discharge from the eyes and/or sensitivity to light. The ailment has three major causes: the introduction into the eye of viruses or bacteria, various irritants like hairspray, makeup, cleaning fluids and smoke and a seasonal allergic response to pollen. Ointments, pills or drops may be prescribed to kill the germ or to ease symptoms, and compressing the eye is recommended.

Unfortunately, Ready said, “These kinds of episodic, viral illnesses are the kinds that slow students down.” Many affected students, including Sophia Nadel ‘05.5 and Scott Nielsen ‘05.5, were unfazed by their brief episodes of conjunctivitis, although they mentioned how uncomfortable it was. John Schirm ‘05.5, who was affected for a week, said his eye “itched really badly, and you can’t touch it. Really annoying. It wasn’t horrible, it was just an annoyance.”

To avoid contracting conjunctivitis, Ready recommended frequent hand washing, eating well, managing stress and avoiding substance abuse — in short, “taking care of yourself.” She said that getting enough sleep is “probably the most important thing” for overall good health and thus a healthy immune system. In addition, students should avoid sharing eye drops and makeup, touching the eye area and sharing clothes, towels or bedding. Anyone experiencing any symptoms of conjunctivitis, or any other unusual discomfort of or around the eyes, should contact the Health Center at extension 5135.

Middlebury has not been as severely affected as other colleges in recent months. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in March about outbreaks at Princeton and Dartmouth.

The report cited 255 cases of conjunctivitis at Princeton over a six-week period and 493 cases at Dartmouth from late January to March 15. Only two weeks later on March 29, incidents of conjunctivitis at Dartmouth soared to 1,000 cases, according to a news update released by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Information about conjunctivitis was obtained from the Web site of the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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