What All Parents Should Know About The Most Common Eye Illness, Conjunctivitis

Oh, the struggles of parenting. We love our children and enjoy all the precious moments with them, but when you wake up to those sudden surprises, such as a red, swollen, goopy eye and the eyelids are stuck together – you want to scream (to no one in particular) – Help!

Your child walks towards you, arms outstretched like a zombie, crying uncontrollably because they can’t see. You try your best to stay calm, grab a warm cloth and try to wipe away the gunk – with your uncooperative child. You quickly google and find the word “pink eye” and feel even more lost as to what to do and suddenly you wish you had a handbook on “all children’s ailments”.

If this eye struggle has crossed your path, chances are pretty good that your child has had pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis. Now that we’ve established the possible diagnosis, let’s see what it is exactly.

What On Earth Is Pink Eye?

The first thing you as a mommy must know, is that it’s not your fault. In fact, acute conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye”, is one of the most common eye infections, particularly among schoolchildren. The reason is that it’s highly contagious; so everyone is susceptible – especially those in crowded places such as preschools, indoor play parks and swimming pools.

The Definition and Causes

Pink eye is an irritation or inflammation of the conjunctiva. Mommy, it’s part of your child’s eye, if you were wondering. This is the thin protective covering that lines the inside of the eyelids, as well as the white part of the front of the eye known as the sclera. The main job of the conjunctiva is to help keep your child’s eye moist by producing tears and mucus. It also serves as a monitor, a security guard of sorts, for infection. It’s actually very effective in alerting the immune system if invaders enter the eye. Although all children have this helpful eye-bodyguard, infections are still very common, especially in children.

What causes it? There are several possible causes of pink eye, but the two most common are upper respiratory viruses and allergies. Bacteria and other less common chemical or environmental exposures can also cause conjunctivitis.

Different Types of Conjunctivitis
Pink Eye Closeup

The Different Types

Just when you thought you now understood what pink eye is, we inform you that there are three types of conjunctivitis, namely viral, allergic and bacterial. Don’t worry, mom, we’ll explain it to you.

  • Viral Conjunctivitis is when you notice a watery discharge that often affects both eyes (even if it starts only with one eye), it’s likely a viral pink eye. Viral pink eye is highly contagious and can be spread for 10-12 days after the start of symptoms. You can give it to yourself if you have a cold by coughing or blowing your nose and then touching your eyes. You can also get it from others or even from touching objects contaminated with eye secretions or respiratory droplets of someone who is infected with the virus. It can also spread from one eye to another.

  • Allergic conjunctivitis is the fairly common type, especially in the change of seasons, but it can occur at any time during the year. Common allergies include dust, pollen and pet dander. When the allergen comes in contact with the eye, conjunctivitis can result. It usually affects both eyes.

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children than adults. Bacteria that cause it include staphylococci, streptococci, gonococci, and Chlamydia. Bacterial conjunctivitis tends to cause a thick, yellow, white or green discharge, which can cause your child’s eyelids to feel crusty and stuck together, especially in the morning. Bacterial conjunctivitis is more likely to affect one eye, but may spread to the other.

What To Do In Terms of Treatment

Each type has a specific way it can be treated.

Unfortunately, when viral pink eye is diagnosed, antibiotics are ineffective. The goal is to make your child more comfortable. The best way to do this is to use cool or warm compresses or artificial tears (can be purchased), which may help, alleviate the discomfort.

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis, on the other hand, may require or resolve more quickly with topical or systemic antibiotics.

  • Allergic conjunctivitis is best treated by trying to avoid the specific allergens, which cause the allergy.

The worst symptoms of conjunctivitis usually last about three to five days, but symptoms may persist for two to three weeks. The biggest issue is to avoid spreading it.

You and your doctor can come up with the treatment plan that will be the best for your child.

If you are uncomfortable about the severity of the conjunctivitis, if your baby develops pink eye, or if your child has had an accident with a strong chemical splashing into the eyes, see a doctor immediately.

  • There are some common sense things you can do in any case of conjunctivitis – no matter its origin.
  • Don’t touch or rub the infected eye
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Use clean pillowcases, towels and washcloths (give each child their own unique towel and washcloth to avoid spreading the infection from one child to another).

With children, making a game out of avoiding touching their eyes, washing their hands if they do and not shaking hands and sharing towels, could make them more cooperative and create some fun out of a not-so-ideal-situation. Even incorporating some sort of reward system or losing points for touching their eyes, can be tremendously helpful and lessen your frustrations. Children, especially older ones, respond to a reward system. In addition to verbal praise, giving your child a sticker and putting it on a calendar or a chart after they’ve used their cold/warm compress, allowed you to put eye drops or ointment in their eyes, or even drink their medicine for example. They will feel rewarded and this idea could enable them to follow their progress of healing visually. The idea is to encourage them.

Woman Worried on a Phone Call
Mother Soothing Her Daughter

When To Be Worried

Conjunctivitis is not usually dangerous. Nevertheless, other conditions that may mimic pink eye (or rarely, conjunctivitis itself) can threaten vision. So, a pink eye that does not rapidly improve and is accompanied by the following symptoms should prompt you to see your doctor or seek medical attention right away:

  • If there is significant eye pain
  • Changes in vision
  • Severe headache
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • A swollen, hard eye

In addition, contact lens wearers (in your older children) may be at increased risk of a serious eye condition called keratitis. So the sudden appearance of a red eye with discharge should prompt one to see a doctor within the next 24 hours.

To Keep Your Child Home or Not?

The decision whether to keep your child home from school is sometimes a difficult one and depends on various factors, such as:

  • Is your child ill with more generalised symptoms including fever? If so, it may be prudent to keep the child home.

  • What is your school’s policy regarding pink eye? On a practical level, this may be the primary factor to consider when deciding whether to keep your child home. Many schools have a policy that a child may return to school 24 hours after starting antibiotic drops for conjunctivitis.

Preventing Pink Eye?

Prevention is the best cure for these common viruses. Learn about how your child’s school attempts to limit transmission of these illnesses. Teaching even very young children some good habits, in a fun way, can help prevent pink eye:

  • Washing their hands frequently (especially if they are rubbing their eyes) and educating them on why it’s so important. There are many songs and rhymes about washing hands.
  • To sneeze in their sleeve and use a saying like “When we Sneeze, we use our Sleeve, otherwise pass the tissue please” to not only make it fun, but quite memorable.
  • To cover their mouth or grab a tissue if they cough. A fun song on this is “Here comes a cough. I’ve got to catch it in a tissue…” teaches children the importance of hygiene (that germs should be caught before they spread), respect to others etc.

If you have further questions about pinkeye or your child’s symptoms seem to be worsening rather than improving after a few days, seek care from a healthcare provider