Pink eye – or conjunctivitis – is a common childhood condition that happens when the thin membrane – the conjunctiva – that covers the eyeball and the inner part of the eyelid becomes inflamed or irritated. This can cause the white part of the eyes to water and appear red or pink, which gives the condition its name.
While pink eye is common, it can be very uncomfortable for kids, which can, in turn, be stressful for parents. Here are three key takeaways every parent should know about pink eye.
What causes pink eye?
Pink eye can be caused by a virus, bacteria, allergies, or chemicals. Pink eye caused by viruses or bacteria is usually accompanied by green or yellow pus in one or both eyes, which sometimes causes the eyes to be crusted shut in the morning. Many of us experience pink eye caused by allergies during the spring and fall, when pollen and other allergens in the air have us itching our watery, irritated eyes. Pink eye that’s caused by chemicals – like what you may experience after swimming in a chlorinated pool, for example – usually gets better after removing oneself from the irritant.
A Closer Look at Viral Pink Eye
Pink eye that is caused by a virus is usually accompanied by other symptoms, including fever, sore throat, stuff/runny nose and cough. Although pink eye with COVID-19 is uncommon, if your child has pink eye that is accompanied by symptoms of COVID-19 or other respiratory infection, call your child’s primary care provider to see if a COVID-19 test is recommended.
Pink eye spreads when germs from an infected person are transmitted to another person’s eye(s). This usually happens when someone with pink eye touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, and then touches a shared surface (like a cell phone or doorknob) without washing their hands. A healthy person who touches that same surface and then touches their eyes may contract pink eye.
When should I call the pediatrician?
While pink eye can be uncomfortable for your child, it is – on its own – rarely serious. However, it’s important to understand that eye infections are very contagious, so if your child has pink eye, it’s important to see their primary care provider right away. Call your child’s doctor if their pink eye is accompanied by other symptoms, like fever, sore throat, cough, pain, stomach discomfort, because the pink eye may be a symptom of a viral or bacterial infection. Your child’s pediatrician will prescribe different treatments based on the type of pink eye your child has. Getting treatment right away will help manage symptoms and help your child feel more comfortable.
How can I prevent my child from getting pink eye?
Hand hygiene is key! Because pink eye is usually caused when people come into contact with a surface that is covered in germs that cause pinkeye, it’s very important to frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, and disinfect shared surfaces in your home. If your child has pink eye, encourage them to avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth, and to wash their hands often. If you help them clean pus from their eyes or apply medication that their pediatrician prescribes, make sure you thoroughly wash your hands afterward as well.
If your child’s pink eye is caused by a bacterial or viral infection, be sure to follow your pediatrician’s advice closely, and stay home if you can while your child has symptoms.
About the Author
Hailey Nelson, MD, FAAP, IBCLC is a complex care pediatrician at Valley Children’s Charlie Mitchell Children’s Center. Dr. Nelson enjoys working with children of all ages and abilities and is especially passionate about providing the best possible care to medically fragile children and their families. As the ambassador for Safe Kids Central California, she is a vocal advocate for children’s wellness and regularly appears in news media discussing pediatric healthcare.