Family Life

Understanding and treating pink eye

My daughter has just returned to school from winter break and already two of her classmates have pink eye! Can you tell me more about the disease, how it is spread, and ways to make sure my children aren’t infected?

Pink eye, 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 pink eye is commonly a viral or bacterial infection. 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.

Pink eye may develop and show symptoms in one or both eyes. The most common symptoms include redness, itchiness, a gritty feeling, discharge that forms a crust during the night, and/or tearing.

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. The good news is, a case of viral conjunctivitis typically goes away in seven to 10 days, and children can usually return to school in three to five days. While those days can be very uncomfortable, over-the-counter remedies, such as warm or cold compresses, can help to alleviate some of those symptoms. Unlike pink eye due to a viral infection, pink eye that is caused by bacteria can be treated by antibiotics, and the child can return to school 24 hours after an antibiotic has been started, provided that symptoms have improved.

The best way to avoid the discomfort of pink eye is to prevent the infection from occurring at all.

Practicing good hygiene is the best way to control its spread. Make sure that hand washing is frequent, and tell your daughter to avoid sharing objects with an infected classmate, as her fingers will no doubt be near her eyes several times a day.

There’s no need to panic; pink eye is a minor eye infection, but left untreated it can develop into a more serious condition. Visit your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned.

Pramod Narula, MD is the Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at
NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

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