Eye Infections / Pink Eye / Chronic Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, caused by the common adenovirus, is a common plague of the schoolyard and office also known as pinkeye.  Some varieties of this highly contagious virus can be transmitted by infected pools of water, and are usually short-lived (three to four days).  However, other strains occur often in wintertime and spread because people are clustered together.  This can actually set off epidemics.

Children are more likely to develop an associated cold from the virus than are adults.  The eye can become red (from pink to blood red), with swollen lids, tearing and discharge.  In some cases the other eye will become involved shortly after the first.  Rubbing increases the chance of spreading the virus to the second eye and to family and friends.  Adenovirus is more contagious than chickenpox.  If the eyes are stuck together upon waking, and/or you have a small, tender lump in front of your ear (the site of a related lymph node) it’s probably pinkeye.

Doctors used to just treat this condition with antibiotic eye drops, which have no effect on virus multiplication.  Occasionally, eye doctors will treat with a steroid eye drop, which will help quiet the eye (reduce the swelling) two-thirds of the time, but also may inhibit your white blood cell defenses.  In some patients, this treatment can actually prolong the condition.

Good hygiene is always important, and is an effective way to avoid this infection.  Avoid rubbing your eyes after touching other areas of your body (i.e.  nose) or foreign objects (i.e.  currency).  Wash your hands frequently.  Use paper towels and tissues instead of cloth towels and handkerchiefs, and avoid using eye makeup or wearing contact lenses until the infection has healed.  If a person with pinkeye uses cloth towels, keep the towels in an area where no one else will use them, and wash all linens in hot water.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a doctor in Ohio used iodine as a matter of course to treat eye infections.  For some reason this effective treatment, got lost along the way, as do many simple and effective herbal treatments.  Dr. Abel has rediscovered this treatment for conjunctivitis.  A five-percent povidone iodine solution, commonly used to prepare all patients for eye surgery, is an inexpensive, simple and rapidly effective cure for viral eye infections.  You can either swab it on the inside of the eyelids, or use it as a drop.  This treatment will resolve the infection completely for most people within 24 hours.  This is the treatment of choice, if available.  Always treat both eyes to prevent spread of the infection.

For home treatment, the alkaloid berberine has well-documented anti-bacterial effects.  It is used in Germany as a treatment for hypersensitive eyes, inflamed lids, and chronic and allergic conjunctivitis (Weiss, 1988).  TAM doctors make eye drops by dissolving a condensed paste extract of darvi (Berberis asiatica, which contains berberine) into water.  Native Americans and Eclectic physicians used goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis) for the same reasons, and it also contains appreciable levels of berberine.  Preparations of either of these plants can be used to wash the eyes very few hours in acute cases, and every fifth day or once a week to clean the eyes, help keep the tear ducts open and prevent infection.  They can also prevent and sometimes cure chronic conjunctivitis, but it takes a while.  Be sure to filter herbal eye solutions made from teas carefully before use with a coffee filter to remove any particulate matter.  Use an eyecup, and wash with this mixture (approximately 1 or 2 minutes for each eye) several times per day.

Eclectic physician Harvey Felter noted that the addition of boric acid to golden seal root extract added greatly to its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory action (Felter, 1922).  At our clinic, I used to use a sterile commercial eyewash compound for conjunctivitis called Rue-Fennel compound (made by Herb Pharm) which contains boric acid, goldenseal and some other mildly astringent herbs.   Five to ten drops of Rue-Fennel compound carefully added to 1/2 ounce of sterile water made an eye drop which is very effective and easy to use. Unfortunately the company discontinued making it.  However you can still get a Bausch & Lomb  boric acid eye wash that contains boric acid, purified water, sodium borate, sodium chloride, then add a few drops of golden seal tincture to it. 

Remember, however, that if conjunctivitis lingers, you should see your doctor, because it can infect the cornea and cause clouding.

Chronic or Recurring Conjunctivitis  – Treating the Whole Person

If conjunctivitis is chronic or frequently recurring, internal treatments may be indicated to balance internal health dynamics.  TCM doctors usually divide these into four basic categories, based upon signs and symptoms, and treat with formulas for several months.  This level of differentiation requires a professional TCM doctor.

Start with a base formula of celosia seed (qing xiang zi or C.  argentea), chrysanthemum flower and buddleia flower (me meng hua or B.  officinalis).  This should comprise about 35-50% of your formula.  Then add additional herbs as follows:

• Heat related – Add dandelion root, forsythia fruit (lian qiao or F.  suspensa), honeysuckle flower (jin yin hua or Lonicera japonica), scute root, cassia seed (jue ming zi or Cassia tora), and siler root (fang feng or Ledebouriella species).  During an acute episode the same formula can be used to speed results by simply adding isatis root.

•  Heat and damp – Add scute root, gentiana root (long dan cao or G.  scabra), plantago seed (che quian zi or P.  ovata), coptis rhizome (huang lian or C.  chinensis), poria mushroom, and phellodendron root.

• Wind and heat – Add schizonepeta herb & flower (jing jie or S.  tunuifolia), siler root, honeysuckle flower, bupleurum root, and mentha (Bo he or M.  haplocalyx).

• Dryness from deficiency – Add raw rehmannia root, glehnia root (sha shen or Adenophora tetraphylla), scrophularia root (xuan shen or S.  ningpoensis), ophiopogon root (mai men dong or O.  japonicus), white peony root, wild asparagus root, and lycium fruit (gou qi zi or L.  chinense)