I Think My Kid Has Pink Eye

Sept. 25, 2013

Eye conjunctivitis isn't fun. Learn what to do when your child's eye turns pink and crusty.

Richmond, Va., mom Michele Schwartz only had to look at her daughter's slightly pink eye and listen to her complaints of eyelash crustiness before she realized conjunctivitis was in the house. "When you notice the whites of the eyes starting to get pink, you just know," she says. But how serious is conjunctivitis (more commonly known as pink eye)?

We asked Dr. Jennifer Shu, medical editor of HealthyChildren.org, and York, Penn.-based family physician Wanda Filer, MD, for some insight on how to treat this common childhood malady.

  1. What Is Conjunctivitis?
    This bright-eyed condition occurs when the membrane lining the eyelid (conjunctiva) is inflamed or infected. Often, the first sign of conjunctivitis is when your child wakes up with a crusty covering on the eye. Even after cool compresses remove the crustiness, you will see a red, swollen and teary eye that might be sensitive to light or even slightly painful.

    Conjunctivitis is easily treatable, but you still have to watch carefully for any changes.

  2. How Do You Get It?
    "There are different causes of conjunctivitis," says Flier. "It can be from allergies, from something viral or it can be bacterial."

    Anyone can come down with conjunctivitis, and it's frequently caused by a virus like a cold, says Shu. But allergies, chemicals or a bacterial infection can also be to blame. If it's bacterial, it is easily spread through sharing towels, pillowcases and makeup, but you can also touch a contaminated object and then touch your own eye area and get an infection.

    The itching and redness from allergic conjunctivitis is just based on irritation and is not contagious. Antibiotic eye drops will not clear up viral conjunctivitis because viruses do not respond to antibiotic treatments, says Filer, but will eventually go away on their own.

  3. How Can I Treat It?
    "Expect it to last a few days," says Flier, "and it might even go to both eyes." If your child has a cold, the conjunctivitis is most likely viral -- but keep a close watch on it just in case. Have your doctor check it out if it doesn't clear up in a day or two or if your child is very uncomfortable. If the child is school age or in day care, most doctors will prescribe some kind of antibiotic for the eye (drops or gel) to get rid of a bacterial infection and prevent a viral infection from turning bacterial. Conjunctivitis caused by allergies will respond well when you aren't around the triggers. A child may feel better with clean, cool compresses applied several times a day.

  4. What About School or Day Care?
    Generally, you can't tell if conjunctivitis is viral or bacterial, says Filer, and many schools don't allow kids with red, teary eyes to stay in school. Many doctors will treat a school-age child or a child in day care with drops to get them back in class faster.

    If the child is at home or in preschool, doctors might want parents to wait and see if the conjunctivitis clears up. If parents are comfortable with the wait-and-see approach, it helps prevent the use of unnecessary antibiotics and, in more practical terms, it saves the family from an unnecessary copayment for a medicine that won't work anyhow. If you choose to wait, watch for changes. If the eye is more swollen or red or if your child is more uncomfortable, irritable or spikes a fever, call the doctor, as that could indicate the start of a more serious infection.

  5. How Can I Prevent It?
    Mom was right -- keep your hands away from your face! Although viral- and allergy-based conjunctivitis can't really be avoided, bacterial conjunctivitis can. Make sure everyone in your house avoids touching or rubbing their eyes, especially in public places like the supermarket when hands are not super clean. Teach your kids to do the same, and remind them that you know it isn't easy.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is an award-winning freelance writer and a mom to two girls. She lives in Massachusetts and has written for local and national publications.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan.  Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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