Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a very common, highly contagious infection that strikes countless children every year. Fortunately the infection is usually harmless and easily treated.
Eyes have a lot of blood vessels and when the thin, clear covering of the eye (the conjunctiva) gets infected, the blood vessels swell, blood rushes to the eyes and the white part of the eyes looks pink. Several things can cause conjunctivitis, but in general, when people use the term "pink eye" they are referring to the contagious infection.
Pink eye can affect one or both eyes. The most common symptoms are redness, itchiness, a gritty feeling in the eyes, increased tearing, a discharge that forms a crust overnight and occasionally eye pain.
Pink eye can rapidly spread from child to child through contact so epidemics can easily break out in classrooms and day care centers. It is almost impossible to keep children from rubbing their eyes and it's even more difficult to keep children from touching each other while they play so to limit the spread of infection some facilities will ask that parents keep children home until treatment is started.
Even though it won't cause serious problems, pink eye can be uncomfortable and annoying. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Generally viruses will cause a thin, watery eye drainage while bacteria will cause a thick, yellow drainage that crusts on the lid.
Call your doctor if you think your child has pink eye. This will help protect other people from catching it. Your doctor will usually take a detailed history to try to find out if the cause is bacterial or viral. In some cases there isn't an infection at all and the pink color is caused by an allergy or from a foreign body in the eye like a spec of dust or an eyelash. A general examination of the head and neck will be done looking for other signs of infection. A special light called a slit lamp may be used to narrow down the possibilities. Eye cultures are rarely taken for a simple conjunctivitis, but if it doesn't clear up with treatment, a more detailed evaluation may be needed.
Treatment of pink eye consists of antibiotic eye drops or ointments that are given several times during the day and less frequently at night. Warm compresses to closed eyes can also help. Children usually start to feel better after a few doses of medication, but treatment should continue for the full prescribed course to ensure the infection is completely gone.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.