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Conjunctivitis (pink eye) is the inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers the white of the eye. When it is irritated, the blood vessels of the eye become enlarged and inflamed. If your child's eye is pink or has redness, there's a good chance he has conjunctivitis, says Dr. Michael Dickinson, spokesperson for the Canadian Paediatric Society and head of pediatrics at Miramichi Regional Hospital in Miramichi, N.B. Other symptoms include a goopy or watery discharge, slightly swollen eyelids and complaints of a sandy or scratchy feeling in the eye (accompanied by lots of eye rubbing).
3 causes of pink eye
Bacterial: Occurs when the eye is exposed to a bacterial organism. "As a general rule, bacterial conjunctivitis tends to have a lot of pus or discharge that comes out of the eye," says Dr. Dickinson. You may notice crusting of the eyelids. It is highly infectious.
Viral: Often the result of being exposed to a person with a cold. It is highly infectious. It tends to have a watery discharge that can last from one to two weeks.
Allergic: Can be caused by environmental factors such as smoke or other irritants (pollen, trees, etc.). Symptoms are itchy, watery eyes. Dr. Dickinson notes that it can be difficult to tell the difference between viral and allergic pink eye, but you can make an educated guess based the time of year. "If you have a child who's known to have allergies and it's allergy season, and they have pink, watery eyes, it is likely allergic. If it's a child in day care and it's the winter months, then that's probably more likely to be viral."
Treating pink eye
Talk to your doctor if you suspect your child has pink eye. They will tell you what course of treatment is needed. Bacterial pink eye is treated with antibiotic eyedrops or ointment. Allergic pink eye can be treated with antihistamine eyedrops or children's oral antihistamines. Viral pink eye doesn't require much, if any, treatment, notes Dr. Dickinson. It just has to run its course. You can, however, use artificial tears to flush and soothe the eyes.
Naturopathic treatment can also be helpful in mild pink eye cases, says Angela Lee, a naturopathic doctor and owner of VitalChecks, a naturopathic clinic in Richmond Hill, Ont. "Warm herbal compresses with antibacterial properties such as goldenseal and echinacea are an effective option for bacterial pink eye," she says. (Echinacea should be avoided if the child has a ragweed allergy.) For viral pink eye, Lee recommends a warm compress.
To prevent the spread of infection, be sure to use separate compresses for each eye. If your child is suffering from allergic pink eye, Lee suggests cool compresses to help soothe itchy eyes. "Cool chamomile tea bags are great for allergic pink eye. The tannins found the in the tea help to reduce itch and inflammation," she says.
Contact your doctor if you do not see any improvement of pink eye symptoms within 24 hours, says Dr. Dickinson. "There might be other things going on with the eye, like a scratch in the cornea or a foreign body in the eye." Contact your doctor if your child still seems unwell or is running a fever.
How to prevent the spread of pink eye
Infectious pink eye (not allergic) is very contagious, and can spread quite easily in day cares, kindergarten classrooms, summer camps and homes. It easily spreads through hand-to-hand contact. "A sick kid rubs her eye, gets the secretion on her hands and then goes and touches a friend or a brother or a parent," says Dr. Dickinson.
Help prevent the spread by washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching your eyes—which is "easy to say, not so easy to do," says Dr. Dickinson. Control the spread by changing pillowcases often and not sharing washcloths.
If your child has pink eye, it is best to keep him home until he has been diagnosed. Children with viral or allergic pink eye can return to school after they have seen a doctor. Those with bacterial pink eye can return after 24 hours of antibiotic treatment, says Dr. Dickinson. Be sure to check with your school or childcare provider about rules regarding attendance after a pink eye diagnosis.
From how often you should see your eye doctor to what questions to ask, here is what you need to know to keep you and your family's eyes healthy.