Another school year underway: Learn about pink eye in children, how to avoid pink eye, and what symptoms to look for.
The return to school means many things to kids and families – building knowledge, learning new concepts and skills, and catching up with friends. Unfortunately, it can also be a time for catching a variety of infectious diseases, including conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink eye).
Pink may not be a part of the ROYGBIV spectrum that young students learn in science, but it’s an important color for parents to recognize when it occurs in their children’s eyes. This is especially if the color is present along with discharge from one or both eyes.
What Causes Pink Eye?
Pink eye results from an infection in the eye. While it is very common and affects 3 million individuals in the United States alone each year, it’s a serious eye infection that can lead to potentially long-term negative effects. Pink eye may be caused by bacterial or viral infection, with viral infections accounting for up to 80% of cases.
In either case, the infection causes moderate to severe inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids. Scarring or clouding of the cornea may also occur as a result of pink eye, and some patients may even experience vision loss. However, these negative consequences can likely be avoided by seeing a healthcare professional as soon as symptoms appear and following several relatively easy steps.
How to Prevent Pink Eye
The best way to avoid the discomfort and potential complications resulting from pink eye is to prevent infection in the first place. Encourage your kids to keep their hands away from their eyes (and their friends’ eyes) and to wash their hands frequently. If your child takes naps at schools, let them know that while sharing is usually a good thing, they shouldn’t share towels, pillows, blankets, or anything else that might make contact with their face or eyes.
Parents also shouldn’t hesitate to speak with their child’s teacher or school health professional about what policies and procedures are in place to help reduce the spread of conjunctivitis and other infectious diseases.
Common Pink Eye Symptoms to Look out For
If preventive measures fail, it’s important to take action quickly. The most common symptoms are discharge from one or both eyes accompanied by the whites of the eye becoming pink. Your child may also complain of itchy or painful eyes, and you should ask if he or she is experiencing any vision problems or having difficulty engaging in normal activities.
If you suspect that your child has contracted pink eye, contact your primary care provider, general practitioner, or pediatrician. In some cases your care provider may prescribe topical antibiotics over the phone, but most will want to examine your child and ensure that the symptoms aren’t the result of injury to the eye. This is especially true for children under the age of five years old, who may not be able to verbally communicate how they feel.
How to Avoid Spreading Pink Eye to Others
If your child has pink eye, it’s important to keep him or her home from school and other activities until the risk of passing it to others is over (typically once symptoms have resolved). Advise your child’s school, playgroups, etc., that your child has pink eye so that parents and teachers can watch for symptoms in other children and take appropriate disinfection measures. Any pillows, blankets, or clothes that your child has at school should be brought home and washed.
While it may be inconvenient to keep a child home from school for a few days, especially for families in which both parents work outside the home, it’s important to remember that pink eye is highly contagious and very likely to spread in communal settings.
Pink Eye Treatment
While adhering to any medication protocol your care provider prescribes is critical for shortening the duration of pink eye infection, there are a number of steps you can take in your own home to prevent the spread of pink eye and ensure that your child doesn’t get re-infected. The infectious agents that cause pink eye can live on inanimate objects such as doorknobs, TV removes, video game controllers, bed linens, and towels. Pillowcases, towels, and clothes should be washed frequently to prevent the spread of infection. Items that can’t go in the washing machine should be cleaned regularly with disinfecting wipes.
Parents also need to be good stewards of antibiotic medications. If your care provider prescribes topical antibiotics, it’s essential to use them exactly as directed, even if that means continuing their use after your child’s symptoms have resolved. Be careful when administering topical antibiotics to ensure that the applicator does not come in contact with the child’s eye, as such contact may allow the medication to become contaminated with bacteria and become a source for re-infection.
Only the person for whom an antibiotic is prescribed should use it and any leftover medicine should be disposed of appropriately (your pharmacy or care provider can clarify the best way to do this).
When to Seek Additional Care for Conjunctivitis
If your child’s symptoms don’t resolve after three to four days of a prescribed care regimen, see an eye care specialist. A specialist may perform tests to determine if the symptoms are due to a viral rather than a bacterial infection or if they are due to causes other than pink eye. Other types of infections with similar symptoms may be more severe and may require alternative interventions in order to protect your child’s eye health.
It’s also important to know that while bacterial infections are a common cause of pink eye in children under the age of 10 years, older children and adults may develop pink eye due to viral infections. If you or a child older than 10 years develops pink eye, you may want to see seek immediate care from an eye care professional who may be able to perform tests to determine the cause of the symptoms.
Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections, and their inappropriate use can lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. While there are currently no treatments that address the underlying cause of viral conjunctivitis, research is ongoing and new therapies may be available in the future.
Being clear-eyed about prevention and treatment is the best way to avoid or minimize the pink eye risks.
Francis Mah, MD, is an ophthalmologist specializing in advanced corneal, cataract and refractive surgery. Dr. Mah has special clinical interests in corneal diseases and infections, corneal transplant surgery, advanced small incision laser cataract surgery, premium intraocular lenses, and refractive surgery. He is the Chair of the ASCRS Corneal Clinical Committee, and the AAO Cornea Preferred Practice Patterns, Co-Chair. He received his Board Certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology in 2001.