ATLANTA -- 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., and incoming president of the Georgia Optometric Association, it is a brutal cold and flu season that is weakening immune systems.
"We're all exposed to viruses and bacteria, and if our immunity is down, we can't fight it off," she said.
Since the flu season began, Brown said her practice has seen a 30 percent increase in pinkeye diagnoses -- from 222 patients last year to 289 so far this year.
"That's huge," she said.
Doctors in the Tasman Eye Group in Kennesaw, Ga., have also seen a spike in pinkeye cases this year, said Dr. Stuart Tasman.
"There are many more cases of the flu this season, and that leads to more cases (of pinkeye), since this type is spread by people with upper respiratory tract infections," he 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.
Conjunctivitis is the most common type and can be caused by viruses associated with the common cold and flu.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection most often caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from your own skin or respiratory system.
And allergic conjunctivitis occurs more commonly among people who already have seasonal allergies but can be caused by other allergens.
"Many people think it goes away on its own, and often parents don't understand the damage it can do," said Brown. "For instance, an eye infection caused by the same virus that causes cold sores, if not treated properly, can cause scarring, greatly reduced vision, and even in some cases necessitate corneal transplant surgery." For all -- including Kathleen Moosa of Alpharetta, who will stay out of her contacts and wear glasses for a while -- the dreaded pinkeye is an inconvenience.
But for some people, the condition is far worse.
"One of my patients recently diagnosed with EKC, epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, was home in bed for a whole week," Brown said.
EKC is a highly contagious form of conjunctivitis often found in emergency rooms, nursing homes, schools, camps and child-care centers.
Brown said Georgia's optometrists are working to educate consumers about the many types of conjunctivitis.
"We really want parents to learn there are important steps they should take if their child has pinkeye so together we can protect that child's vision and help them live a healthy life," she said.
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.