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Everything parents ever wanted to know about pink eye

One of my favorite things about children is how energetic they are. From running around all day to playing dress up with what seems to be hundreds of outfit changes, kids are always on the go.

With all of this fun and energy, kids tend to forget about the simple rules to staying healthy, like washing their hands thoroughly and often. As toys are picked up and dropped and picked up again, germs can easily become involved. When a child’s hand comes into contact with germs and they then touch their eyes or mouth, getting sick is a big possibility. While we often think about colds and the flu, we tend to forget about other possibilities, such as the most common eye disease in children: pink eye.

What is pink eye?

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is irritation of the clear tissues that cover the white part of the eye and the inside surface of the eyelid. Pink eye can cause redness, drainage, discharge, pus or mucus in the eye, sometimes causing eyelashes to stick together or the eye to swell.

How do you get pink eye?

Pink eye can originate from many different sources, such as:

  • Virus
  • Allergies
  • Bacteria
  • Chemical exposure (i.e. smoke or cosmetics)
  • Irritants like dust

Pink eye is highly contagious, if it is viral or bacterial, for as long as symptoms are present and can easily spread to others in many ways. The most common way pink eye is passed is through direct person to person contact, which is why hand washing is so important. Pink eye can also be spread through germs coughed or sneezed into the air. Another common way kids can contract pink eye is through contact with items or toys that have been touched by others who are infected. So once you see signs of an infection, it’s a good idea to disinfect all toys.

How to prevent pink eye?

There are a few simple ways you can help prevent pink eye infections.

  • Encourage your whole family to wash their hands throughout the day.
  • Remind your children to keep unwashed hands away from their eyes and mouth.
  • Frequently wash your family’s clothes and pillowcases.
  • Don’t let your family share towels or washcloths.

How to treat pink eye?

Even when every preventive step is taken, pink eye can still infect your child. Treatment depends on the cause of the pink eye.

Viral pink eye consists of watery discharge that may dry in lashes, especially after sleeping.  This can usually be taken care of at home by using warm, wet compresses to help remove the crusty discharge.  If drainage is thick white, yellow or green and needs to be wiped out of the eye multiple times per day, it is likely a bacterial infection.  A trip to the doctor is needed to verify if it is bacterial and if antibiotic drops need to be prescribed.

Some kids will get pink eye from allergies.  All types of pink eye can be itchy but allergic pink eye can be even itchier.  Eyes may be watery and/or have a sticky discharge that crusts in the eyelashes.  Your child may also have sneezing and nasal congestion to go along with it.  There are over-the-counter allergy eye drops that work well, but discuss with your doctor for confirmation and best treatment options.

For pink eye caused by exposures to irritants like smoke, cosmetics or dust, you can try flushing the eye with an over the counter saline drop.  If your child has pain or continue to have symptoms, it is best to have your child seen by a doctor.

Remember, good hand washing is key, along with washing towels, pillowcases and clothing that has been used by your child.  If your child wears contacts, they should switch to wearing glasses until the infection is gone.  The old contacts need to be discarded as well.

If your child has the following symptoms, contact their pediatrician:

  • Redness, swelling or pain in the eye or eyelid
  • Blurry vision, double vision or increased sensitivity to light
  • Blister-like sores close to the eye
  • Cloudy look in the eye
  • No improvement of infection after two days of using prescribed medication

If you have any questions about pink eye, never hesitate to ask your child’s pediatrician.