Q: What advice would you give to the parent of a child with pink eye?
A: The best thing to do when your child has a pink eye is to visit your pediatrician or eye-care provider. The doctor will examine your child to rule out more serious conditions or injuries with similar symptoms. If it is determined that your child does indeed have pink eye — also known as conjunctivitis — the doctor will determine the most likely cause and the treatment that will be needed, if any.
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the surface tissue of the lining of the eyelid and over the white part of the eye itself— the conjunctiva. When the conjunctiva becomes inflamed, you may experience redness of the eyes, an itchy feeling of the eyes, discharge or tearing. Often you will have a sensation that something is stuck under the eyelid. The most common causes of conjunctivitis are viruses, bacteria and seasonal allergies.
Viral conjunctivitis is often present in children who are also having common cold or respiratory symptoms. It is highly contagious; and since it is caused by a virus, antibiotic eye drops do not help. Most cases are mild, and your child can likely return to school with resolution of the underlying illness and the conjunctivitis. The virus may take as long as 14 to 21 days to run its course, so over-the-counter treatments such as cool compresses, cool artificial tears and pain relievers such as Tylenol will help with the symptoms. The virus is spread by touching the eyes, tears or discharge, so frequent hand washing is a must to avoid its spread to other family members or at school.
Bacterial conjunctivitis, as its name suggests, is caused by a bacterial infection of the eye. Your pediatrician or eye doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops to reduce the length of infection and to minimize contagiousness. Most cases run their course within seven to 10 days. It is also very contagious so frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the infected eye is necessary, just as for viral causes.
Practicing good hand hygiene is the best way your child can avoid getting conjunctivitis in the first place. Many viruses and bacterial illnesses are spread from touching a contaminated door handle or other object and then touching the face. Teach your children to wash their hands frequently, change their bathroom and bed linens regularly, and encourage them to avoid touching their own eyes. This is especially important during a viral pandemic such as the U.S. is experiencing at this time.
The third most likely cause for a red eye is seasonal allergies. In addition to the red eye, other common symptoms include itchy eyes and a watery discharge. Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis also often affects both eyes at the same time, although one eye can be much more affected than the other. Treating your underlying allergies, and the addition of ocular allergy drops, are the best treatments for this type of conjunctivitis.
Please see your pediatrician or eye doctor for conjunctivitis. It can be very difficult to distinguish between the varying causes, and it is important to rule out any underlying eye disease, which could have a long-term effect on your child's vision.
Paula Nicola, M.D., is an ophthalmologist at Eyecare Chattanooga and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.