“Have you been sexually active lately?” asked the ophthalmologist as I squirmed in her chair.
My allergist had just posed the same embarrassing question after I lifted my sunglasses to reveal red, encrusted eyes I knew were inflicted with conjunctivitis. I’d had viral pink eye as a child, but I never experienced this green discharge oozing onto my lower swollen lids. I was here because my allergist demanded I visit the eye doctor in his building. “Go right now,” he instructed, comparing my condition to gonococcal conjunctivitis, a type of pink eye caused by the same bacteria responsible for gonorrhea. Now in the ophthalmologist’s chair, under lights that compelled me to blink like Nosferatu on the Jersey Shore, my shameful peepers made me feel like a sleazy subject in a World War II health poster: “You can’t beat Axis if you get VD.”
As the ophthalmologist and her assistant peered at me, I told my tale of woe. I lamented that after 2,190 days of abstinence, I found someone special after years of unsuccessful online dating. My new boyfriend and I had protected intercourse one time two weeks before.
“Did you get any semen in your eyes?” the ophthalmologist asked.
I began to giggle, which made my orbs burn even more. Admittedly, I was selective with my partners and may not be hip to the latest trends, but when did ocular sex start sweeping the nation?
“Nothing got in my eyes,” I answered between guffaws. “But I did take a restorative yoga class two days before I got this. To help me relax, the teacher gave me an eye pillow, sort of a like a bean bag that you put over your eyes. Usually, I wrap it in tissue, but the studio was all out of Kleenex.”
“Aha,” she said, noting that the eye pillow was probably stored in a dark, warm studio where germs flourish, especially since a children’s after-school program used the same space. Allergies, chemicals and viral or bacterial infections may irritate the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. Most likely, I picked up this contagious bacteria from my yoga class—not from one night of amour.
My blinkers responded well to the antibiotic drops and cream the doctor prescribed. Days later I was back at work. To be safe, I got tested for sexually transmitted infections and suggested my partner do the same. As I waited for the results (and the outcome of our fragile relationship), I googled “germs and yoga mats” and found that studios are breeding grounds for all sorts of grossness, including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and ringworm. Because I noticed almost immediate improvements with antibiotics, my doctor did not think it was necessary to send me to an eye hospital to get a culture.
Without lab results, I could only guess about my offending organism. I reached out to Dr. Philip M. Tierno, Jr, professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine. To make a determination, he said he really needed to see the microbe isolated in the cultures. But he could offer insight.
“There are several organisms that can ordinarily cause pink eye,” Dr. Tierno said. “Some are bacteria (like hemophilus influenza, pseudomonas aeruginosa). Others are viral in nature. Unlike GC [gonococcal bacteria], those microbes can survive well on inanimate objects like a yoga mat that was dirty.”
“You likely did not have a GC,” he assured me after I explained my one sexual encounter versus the eye pillow in yoga class. “GC doesn’t survive in the ambient environment. So if the person has GC they got it by some form of sexual encounter with a person but not equipment.”
In summation, I did have a tough strain of pink eye, most likely contracted in yoga class after direct contact with an eye pillow. I probably did not get conjunctivitis from the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. In the meantime, I vowed never again to use a public eye pillow or mat and to avoid touching my face without first washing my hands.
As for my sweetheart and me, our STD tests came back negative, but our attraction fizzled out without any applause. When it comes to gonorrhea, even the thought is no clapping matter.
Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York who has a M.A. in Health Education. She teaches yoga and physical fitness to adults 60 and better.