By: Stephanie Shabangu, Penfield Children’s Center
Pink eye or conjunctivitis, is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the clear membrane that lines the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. It can also be caused by allergies associated with hay fever. When pink eye is caused by an allergic reaction, it is most often because the child is sensitive to common allergens in the environment such as ragweed, pollen, grass or dust mites. The pinkish color is a result of inflamed blood vessels within the membrane.
Pink eye caused by a virus or bacteria can be the result of a cold or other respiratory infection such as a sore throat. Bacterial and viral pink eye usually start in one eye only, but may spread over time to the other eye if left untreated. Both children and adults can develop viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, but children are often more susceptible to pink eye caused by bacteria.
When pink eye is allergy-related, it often affects both eyes. When the body is exposed to allergens, it produces immunoglobulin E, an antibody that alerts cells within the lining of the airways and eyes to produce histamines. These histamines can turn irritated eyes pink or red. If your child suffers from allergic conjunctivitis he/she might also experience a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes.
Children who develop pink eye often experience red, itchy eyes and a discharge from the eye that might make it difficult to open the eye completely. Since pink eye is highly contagious, it’s important to bring your child to the doctor for proper treatment to stop the infection from spreading between classmates.
While pink eye can often go away by itself, the doctor might prescribe some type of drug therapy to treat it. Viral conjunctivitis does not usually need any type of medication to subside, but the doctor might prescribe antiviral eye drops.
When your child is diagnosed with bacterial conjunctivitis, he or she might receive a prescription for antibiotic eye drops to help clear the infection.
With allergic conjunctivitis, the doctor might recommend using oral antihistamines or antihistamine eye drops. It is important to always consult a doctor before using over the counter eye drops to determine what kind of treatment the child needs.
For all types of pink eye, a cool washcloth or compress can also bring relief. According to the Mayo Clinic, to make a compress, find a clean washcloth, soak it and wring out the water. Apply this compress to your closed eye several times per day. To reduce spreading pink eye from one eye to the other, do not touch the compress to the other eye.
To limit your child’s exposure to viruses and bacteria that cause pink eye, encourage him/her to wash his/her hands frequently at school and at home and try to avoid touching or rubbing the eyes. With allergic conjunctivitis, a bath before bedtime and washing your child’s clothes frequently helps to cut down on allergens that trigger a reaction. In addition, changing pillowcases often and using clean washcloths and towels can help prevent pink eye from spreading.
While pink eye is often nothing to worry about, it’s important to make an appointment with your child’s doctor to rule out other infections and reduce the chance of spreading it to friends and family members. It might be difficult to fully prevent your child from getting pink eye, but with proper hygiene, parents can help keep kids healthy.
What steps have you taken to limit your child’s exposure to pink eye?