Ask the Doctor: Serotonin, Pink Eye in Adults; Adenoids & Immune Health

Q: A friend of mine takes an antidepressant that affects serotonin. What is serotonin, and what does it do?

A: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter—a chemical that transmits messages between neurons in the brain and to the central nervous system. Serotonin has been described as a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, since it is believed to boost mood, decrease anxiety, and contribute to an overall sense of well-being. People who are suffering from depression tend to have low levels of serotonin. Serotonin also plays a role in the formation of blood clots, and it is involved in regulating bowel function. Research also suggests that serotonin has an effect on bone and liver health, as well as appetite.

Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase the amount of serotonin that’s available in the brain. SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, and Lexapro. Other antidepressants that affect serotonin levels in the brain are called serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs; these medications include Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq, and Fetzima. Norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter that isbeleived to have an effect on mood. See the article on page 4 for more information about depression and treatment options.

Q: My pharmacist told me that my red, itchy eyes might be due to pink eye, but I thought only children developed this problem—should I see a doctor?

A: Though pink eye is commonly associated with babies and young children, adults are equally at risk for this common infection, which is also known as conjunctivitis. The condition is often caused by the same virus that underpins the common cold, but instead of affecting the membranes in the nose and throat, it affects the conjunctiva—the membrane that lines the inner eyelid and the surface of the eye—and causes inflammation of the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids. Pink eye also can be caused by bacteria, as well as pet dander, dust mites, ingredients in cosmetics, and chlorine in swimming pools. Redness and sensitivity in the eye also can be caused by foreign bodies or more serious eye conditions.

While your pharmacist may be correct, it’s a good idea to have your eyes checked by an ophthalmologist. As well as confirming the diagnosis, he or she should be able to ascertain whether the pink eye is bacterial, in which case you may need a course of antibiotics. Keep in mind that antibiotics won’t clear viral pink eye, which typically resolves in 7 to 10 days. To help relieve inflammation, you can apply cold compresses to your eyes. If your eyes are dry, you can use artificial tears.

Pink eye that is caused by a virus or bacteria is extremely contagious. If you do have pink eye, avoid spreading it by washing your hands frequently (and always after touching your eyes), and don’t share washcloths or towels with other family members. Also, never share makeup or makeup brushes with others.

Q: My grandson just had his tonsils and adenoids removed, and one of the nurses at the hospital mentioned that adults don’t have adenoids. Is this true?

A: Yes, it is. Children have adenoids—glands located in the roof of the back of the mouth—to help protect them from infection. Along with the tonsils, which are located on either side of the throat, the adenoids trap bacteria and viruses that enter the nose and mouth. Adenoids typically begin to shrink during adolescence and are usually gone by early adulthood.

—Editor-in-Chief Orli R. Etingin, M.D.

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