Keep an eye out for conjunctivitis

Several children in my daughter’s class have recently been diagnosed with pinkeye. I certainly want to make sure that she isn’t next! Can you tell me more about the disease, how it is spread, and ways to make sure my children aren’t infected?

Pinkeye, also known as conjunctivitis, is an inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane that lines the eyelid and part of the eyeball. This membrane, known as the conjunctiva, is usually clear. However, if irritation or infection occurs, it can become red and swollen.

The cause of pinkeye is commonly a viral or bacterial infection, an allergic reaction or — in newborns — an incompletely opened tear duct. Most cases of conjunctivitis are caused by viral infections. However, both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious, which is why early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to limit its spread.

The most common symptoms of pinkeye include redness in one or both eyes, itchiness in one or both eyes, a gritty feeling in one or both eyes, and tearing and-or discharge of fluid in one or both eyes that forms a crust during the night. A distinguishing characteristic between viral pinkeye and bacterial conjunctivitis is the color of the discharge; viral pinkeye tends to have a clear discharge, while bacterial pinkeye is often opaque, with a greenish-yellow hue.

In the case of conjunctivitis caused by a virus, there is no simple “cure” — the infection simply must run its course while the body fights it off. A case of viral conjunctivitis typically goes away in seven to 10 days, and over-the-counter remedies, such as warm or cold compresses, can help alleviate some of the symptoms in the meantime. Children can usually return to day care or school in three to five days.

Unlike pinkeye due to a viral infection, pinkeye that is caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, and the child can return to school 24 hours after an antibiotic has been started if symptoms have improved.

The best way to avoid the discomfort of pinkeye is to prevent the infection from occurring at all. Practicing good hygiene is the best way to control its spread; poor hand-washing is the main cause of the spread of pinkeye. Sharing an object, such as a washcloth or towel, with a child who has pinkeye can also spread the infection.

There’s no need to panic; pinkeye is a minor eye infection, but left untreated it could develop into a more serious condition. A visit to the pediatrician if you are concerned that your child has pinkeye can ensure that conjunctivitis doesn’t have you seeing red. Or pink.