Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

Have you noticed that your son has been scratching his eyes a lot lately? Or perhaps your daughter is complaining that her eyes are "stuck shut" when she wakes up in the morning? If these complaints sound familiar, then your child may be suffering from one of the most common childhood illnesses: pink eye. Pink eye afflicts just about every child at least once in their lifetime, particularly if they are attending school, daycare, or have lots of siblings around. Though it doesn’t look pretty, pink eye is usually nothing to worry about and can be treated with simple remedies prescribed by your health care provider.

What is Pink Eye?
Pink eye is one of the most common types of eye infections affecting children (and adults!) in the United States. Formally known as conjunctivitis, pink eye gets its name because it causes the whites of the eyes to appear red or pinkish in color. Pink eye occurs when the conjuctiva, the thin membrane lining the whites of the eye, becomes irritated or inflamed. Often highly contagious, pink eye is typically not serious and can be cured easily by over-the-counter or prescription medications.

Types of Pink Eye
There are four main types of pink eye. Each type of pink eye is associated with slightly different symptoms and must be treated with specific medications.

    Viral Pink Eye
    Viral pink eye, or viral conjunctivitis, is the most common type of pink eye. Caused by a virus, viral pink eye is often associated with a cold, sore throat, or upper respiratory infection. It usually occurs in only one eye, though this form of pink eye is highly contagious and can be spread to the other eye if it is touched with an infected hand, towel, or washcloth. The main symptoms of viral conjunctivitis include:

    • watery discharge
    • redness and irritation
    • swollen eyelids

    Bacterial Pink Eye
    Bacterial pink eye is caused by certain types of bacteria, especially streptococcus, staphylococcus, and pneumococcus. This type of pink eye can range in severity, depending upon the type of bacteria that is responsible for the infection. Symptoms typically include:

    • redness and irritation
    • itching
    • tearing
    • stringy, green or yellow discharge
    • eyelids that stick shut, particularly after sleeping

    Allergic Pink Eye
    Allergic pinkeye is typically associated with seasonal allergens, like pollen and grass. It can also be caused by an allergic reaction to pet dander, perfumes, smoke, or certain medications. Allergic pink eye typically affects both eyes at the same time, and causes:

    • itchiness
    • redness
    • swelling of the eyelids
    • tearing

    Allergic pink eye can not be transmitted to others.

Diagnosing Pink Eye
If you think that your son or daughter may have pink eye, it is important to visit with your local optometrist. Your optometrist will be able to examine your child’s eyes and determine which type of pink eye he may have. During this visit, it is likely that the optometrist will examine your child’s eyes using a machine called a slit lamp microscope. This microscope allows the optometrist to examine eyes under magnification. A swab of the discharge from your child’s eyes may also be taken so that it can be analyzed.

Pink Eye Treatment
If your child is diagnosed with pink eye, it is important to treat the infection in order to reduce symptom severity and prevent continued infection.

    Home Remedies and Over-the-Counter Treatments
    In order to ease the discomfort of pink eye, try applying a warm washcloth to the eye area. Be careful not to apply this washcloth to the healthy eye though, as this could spread the infection. Carefully remove crusted discharge by applying warm water to a cotton ball and rubbing it on the affected area. You may also want to purchase artificial tears from your local pharmacy and apply these to the affected eye daily. Artificial tears can help to keep the eye lubricated and comfortable. Over-the-counter pain killers, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can also help to make your child more comfortable.

    Medical Treatment
    Medicinal treatments are not available for viral pink eye. This type of pink eye must be left to run its course, which typically takes between seven and ten days. Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotic eye drops. These can be prescribed by your general practitioner or by your optometrist. Allergic pink eye is usually treated with antihistamines, which help to reduce the reaction to the allergen.

Preventing Pink Eye
Pink eye can be highly contagious and may spread quickly throughout your household. Here are some tips on how to keep pink eye from taking over:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap. Be sure your children also wash their hands thoroughly throughout the day
  • Avoid touching your eyes as much as possible
  • Have each member of your household use separate towels, to prevent the spread of the infection
  • Don’t share makeup or eye drops
  • Throw out any makeup or eye drops that you or your children use during a pink eye infection
  • If possible, help your child’s peers stay pinkeye-free by keeping an infected child home from school until her symptoms disappear