Some say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. For children, the eyes can also be the doorway to an uncomfortable illness. Also known as “Pink Eye”, conjunctivitis is a relatively common infection in young children.

Unfortunately, conjunctivitis can be very contagious! It’s not unheard of for pink eye breakouts to sweep through preschools and playgrounds. While very common in young children, conjunctivitis can also affect teens and adults.

By definition, conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the white part of the eye and the inner eyelids. While considered by some to be a minor infection, the symptoms can be quite serious, especially since the inflammation can affect your vision.

While some types of conjunctivitis resolve spontaneously, others need treatment. Therefore, if your child shows symptoms of pinkeye, it’s important to see a pediatrician.

What Causes Conjunctivitis Pinkeye?

Infectious pink eye can be caused by a wide range of bacteria and viruses including those that are responsible for the common cold. It can be easily spread through schools and families by hand to hand contact, and might also occur in conjunction with other conditions such as ear infections, sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, and sore throat. In teenagers, conjunctivitis can be caused by the same type of bacteria that causes sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, and can be severe.

There are also non-infectious types of pinkeye that are caused by environmental factors and allergic reactions. Allergic conjunctivitis occurs more frequently in children with other allergic conditions, such as hay fever.

Common triggers can include:

  • Grass and tree pollens
  • Ragweed pollen
  • Animal dander
  • Dust and dust mites

Irritant conjunctivitis can be caused by anything that irritates the eyes. This can include things like:

  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Air pollution
  • Chlorine in pools
  • Wind-blown dust & sand

Conjunctivitis in Newborns

Newborns can be particularly prone to conjunctivitis, and can develop serious health problems if not treated. Passing through the birth canal during delivery, a newborn can be exposed to a maternal sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause an infection of the infant’s eyes.

Hospitals often give antibiotic ointment or eye drops to all babies right after being born to prevent this complication. This is also one of the reasons most physicians screen pregnant women for STIs and treat them during pregnancy.

What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

The telltale red or pink color of the white part of the eye is the most overt symptom of conjunctivitis. This is usually associated with a general discomfort or grittiness. A lot of children say that it feels like there’s sand in the eye.

Many children often experience some type of discharge from the eye, followed by swelling of the conjunctiva. Children may also get swollen eyelids or sensitivity to bright light.

Is Pink Eye Contagious?

Pinkeye conjunctivitis that is caused by a type of communicable bacteria or virus can easily be spread from person to person. Your child can get pinkeye by touching an infected person or something an infected person has touched. Pink Eye can spread when kids swim in contaminated water or share contaminated towels.

How Is Conjunctivitis Pink Eye Diagnosed?

If you think your child has pinkeye, you should contact their pediatrician so they can assess the underlying cause and necessary diagnostics. Some serious eye conditions can have similar symptoms and need to be ruled out. Contact your pediatrician immediately if your child experiences:
severe eye pain

  • changes in eyesight
  • swelling around the eyes
  • sensitivity to light

How Is Conjunctivitis Treated?

If your child’s case of conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, it will usually go away without any treatment. If the conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria, it can be treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment. (Bacterial conjunctivitis most often causes a recurring mucusy eye discharge.)

In the case of allergic conjunctivitis, your child’s pediatrician might prescribe anti-allergy medicine, either as pills, liquid, or eye drops. They might also tell you to give them acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve discomfort. (Allergic eyes may have a watery discharge and are often itchy.)

Managing Conjunctivitis Symptoms

Applying a cool or warm compress over the eyes might make your child more comfortable. It’s also a good idea to clean the edges of the infected eyes carefully with warm water or cotton balls to remove the crusts of dried discharge that make the eyelids stick together in the morning.

If your child uses contact lenses, they should switch back to wearing glasses until the infection has completely cleared up. You should also disinfect the lenses and their storage case at least twice before letting your child wear them again, or discard disposable lenses. Contact lenses and the case can harbor germs and lead to reinfection.

Pediatricians usually recommend keeping kids with contagious conjunctivitis out of school, or childcare until the infection clears up to avoid infecting others.

Can Conjunctivitis Be Prevented?

A child can reduce the risk of suffering from infectious conjunctivitis by frequently washing their hands with warm water and soap. Make sure that they don’t share eye drops, tissues, eye makeup, washcloths, towels, or pillowcases with anyone.

Make sure to also wash your own hands after touching your child’s eyes and throw away items like gauze or cotton balls after they’ve been used. You should immediately wash in hot water towels and other linens that the child has used. Ideally, you want to keep these items separate from the rest of the family’s laundry to avoid contamination.

In a case of allergic conjunctivitis, try to keep windows and doors closed on days when the pollen is heavy, and dust and vacuum often to limit allergy triggers. Irritant conjunctivitis can only be prevented by avoiding the irritating causes.

When Should I Call the Pediatrician?

If your child’s conjunctivitis symptoms are severe or don’t improve after 2 to 3 days of treatment, you should call your child’s pediatrician. If your child has a fever, along with increased swelling, redness, and tenderness in the eyelids and around the eye, you should schedule an appointment. Those symptoms may mean the infection has started to spread beyond the conjunctiva and will require additional treatment.