The ultimate guide to pink eye

Is it conjunctivitis? Here's everything you need to know about pink eye, including its symptoms and how to treat it.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Every parent’s been there: Your kid wakes up in the morning, you go in for your morning hug, and you notice the white of her eye is pink. Is it pink eye? What should you do next? Can you send her to daycare or school? Are you going to catch it, too?

Read on for the answers to all your pink eye questions.

Are there different types of pink eye?
There are three types of pink eye (also known as conjunctivitis): viral, bacterial and allergic.

How can I tell which one my kid has?
Viral: Viral pink eye is the most common type. One or both eyes may be pink, as well as watery, itchy or sensitive to light. Often times, viral pink eye accompanies (or follows) a cold.

Bacterial: Is only one of your kid’s eyes pink, and is it accompanied by thick, sticky, yellow or greenish-yellow discharge in the corner of that eye? He probably has bacterial pink eye. The discharge is so sticky, he may have even had a hard time opening his eyes in the morning.

Allergic: Seasonal allergies can cause allergic pink eye, which can accompany typical seasonal allergy symptoms, such as stuffiness and a runny nose. Allergic pink eye will typically affect both eyes.

OK, what do I do next? Off to the doctor?
That depends.

  • Viral pink eye can generally be treated at home. Just like the common cold, there’s no cure for it, so all you can do is let it run its course (over a few days, up to a week or two) and treat the symptoms. A damp washcloth can help soothe irritation (and can help psychologically, too—a lot of kids calm down once they feel like something is being done). Eye drops aren’t recommended for viral pink eye, but visit the doctor if you aren’t sure it’s not bacterial, which requires drops (see below). And if what appears to be viral pink eye worsens from a watery discharge to a thicker, greenish-yellow discharge, see your doc. Finally, you definitely want to hit the doctor’s office if your kid is complaining of eye pain or vision issues.
  • Bacterial pink eye requires antibiotic eye drops. Your kid’s doctor can provide a prescription.
  • Allergic pink eye can be relieved with seasonal allergy pills or antihistamines. Chat with your doctor if this is the first time your kid is experiencing allergies to see which medications would be most appropriate.

I don’t want to drag my kid to the doctor. Can’t I use over-the-counter eye drops for bacterial pink eye?
Polysporin makes over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic eye drops for pink eye that are safe for kids and widely available. They’re great if you can’t get to a doctor right away, but there’s debate among experts as to whether these OTC drops can replace prescription eye drops. “Anecdotally, over-the-counter pink eye drops have worked for kids and adults,” says Sean Simpson, chair of the Ontario Pharmacist Association’s board of directors. But, he adds, “It’s still important to see a doctor.”

My kid sees me with eye drops and runs away screaming. How do I get the drops in her eyes without physically holding her down?
Yep, kids and eye drops do not go well together. But there are a few tricks that help. Eddy Lau, chief of paediatrics at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, suggests having your eye drop-resistent kid close her eyes and then gently pulling down her bottom lid. “This will create a reservoir for the drops to land,” he says. When you release the bottom lid, your kid will close her eyes and the drop should stay in that reservoir and make its way throughout the eye.

Pink eye looks worse than it really is, though, right? It’s not serious?
In some cases, pink eye can be an early sign of something worse, such as periorbital cellulitis. Periorbital cellulitis is the infection of soft tissue around the eye. In rare cases, it can progress into orbital cellulitis, which causes pain, vision loss and eye bulging. It can be sight- and life-threatening. Lau says to monitor your child’s eye carefully and watch for signs of increased swelling of the eyelid. “If the child is able to voice that they are having trouble seeing, they should see a doctor,” he says.

Are all types of pink eye contagious?
Both viral and bacterial pink eye are highly contagious, spread through direct contact with hands or objects that have touched the infected eye. Viral pink eye can also spread through coughing and sneezing.

Allergic pink eye isn’t contagious. Kids with allergies can attend school or daycare.

I’m going to catch it, aren’t I? And what about my other kids?
Just like any virus or bacteria—a cold, stomach flu, strep throat—pink eye can spread to everyone in the house. But it doesn’t have to. Everyone should step up their hand-washing game, washing more frequently and for longer each time. If you’re administering eye drops, wash your hands before and after.

If your kid has viral or bacterial pink eye, keep his eye free of discharge by wiping it away with a damp washcloth (and don’t re-use the same towel each time).

When can I send my kid to daycare or school?
Kids with viral and bacterial pink eye should be kept home for the first 24-48 hours, to prevent spreading. As long as there is discharge present, your kid is definitely contagious.

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Read More:
3 common eye problems: What you need to know
How to give your kid eye drops
How to know when your kid is too sick for school

 

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