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Pink eye (Conjunctivitis)

Pink eye is a common illness that can spread quickly, especially among kids at day care or school. It’s not usually serious, but it’s important to make sure your child doesn’t give it to others.

At Banner Children’s, we’re here to help. We share all you need to know about pink eye and how to take care of it. 

What is pink eye?

Pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is an eye condition that commonly affects children but can also affect people of all ages.

Pink eye occurs when the thin, clear layer that sits over the white part of the eye (the conjunctiva) becomes irritated or infected. This can cause the white part of the eye and inside of the eyelids to become red or pink.

How do you get pink eye?

People can get pink eye for different reasons, and it can affect one or both eyes.

The three main types of pink eye are:

  • Viral conjunctivitis: Viral pink eye is the most common kind of pink eye in kids. It often comes from a cold or adenovirus. Viral pink eye is very contagious and can quickly spread from one person to another. It usually starts in one eye and can move to the other.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Bacterial pink eye, often caused by Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, can happen on its own or after an upper respiratory infection. It is also very contagious. 
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Allergic pink eye is triggered by allergies to things like pollen, dust, mites and pets. It’s not contagious.

It’s important to know that other things can make the eyes look like they have pink eye, such as irritating smoke, chemicals (such as swimming in a chlorine pool) or things that fall into the eye. Newborns can also have discharge and/or watery eyes, usually from a blocked tear duct.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

Pink eye can have different symptoms, so it can be difficult to know whether a virus, bacteria or allergen is causing it.

Here are some common symptoms to watch out for:

  • Redness: The white part of the eye might look red or pink because the thin layer covering it is inflamed.
  • Watery eyes: The eyes might produce more tears than usual.
  • Itching: Your child’s eyes could feel itchy or like something is in them, making them want to rub or scratch their eyes.
  • Discharge: There might be a liquid coming from the eyes. It could be clear and watery with viral pink eye or thicker and yellow or green if the cause is bacteria.
  • Swollen eyelids: Eyelids might be puffy or swollen, making it hard to open the eyes.
  • Eye pain: Sometimes, pink eye can hurt your child’s eyes, especially when they blink or move them.

Symptoms can appear within 24 to 72 hours of becoming infected and last from two days to a few weeks.

How does pink eye spread?

Pink eye can quickly spread from person to person through:

  • Direct contact: When a child with pink eye touches the discharge from their eye and then touches another child.
  • Contaminated objects: Using things like towels or toys that have touched infected eyes or hands that have touched the eyes.
  • Respiratory droplets: Tiny droplets can spread the infection when someone with pink eye coughs or sneezes.

How is pink eye diagnosed and treated?

Pink eye is easy to spot. A health care provider will know if your child has pink eye by looking carefully at their eyes to see if they are red and if any liquid is coming from them.

The treatment for pink eye depends on what’s causing it:

  • Viral pink eye: This usually goes away on its own. Occasionally, antibiotic eye drops may be used to stop a secondary infection.
  • Bacterial pink eye: This may be treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment to clear the infection.
  • Allergic pink eye: Avoiding allergens and using antihistamine eye drops or allergy medicines can help.

What things can I do to treat pink eye at home?

To help your child feel better while they have pink eye, you can:

  • Place a warm, damp washcloth on their closed eyelids to soothe them and to gently wipe away crustiness from their eyelids. Don’t rub their eyes. Put the cloth in the laundry and wash it in hot water when you’re done with it.
  • Wash your hands immediately after touching infected eyes.
  • Replace your child’s pillowcase every night until the infection is gone, and don’t let them share towels, beds or clothes with other siblings. Launder all clothes and linens in hot water to disinfect them.
  • Keep your child home from daycare and school until their eyes are better.

When should I call my child’s provider?

Always call your provider if your child’s pink eye isn’t getting better after a few days or if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • Serious eye pain
  • Eyesight or vision changes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Increased swelling and redness
  • Seems unwell and has a fever
  • White, goopy drainage from the eye (pus)

If your baby is younger than 2 months, call your provider at the first signs of any illness.

Are there ways to prevent the spread of pink eye?

You can stop pink eye from spreading by:

  • Washing your hands often with soap and water.
  • Avoiding touching or rubbing your eyes.
  • Using a tissue or your elbow to cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze.

Our expert specialists

Banner Children’s caring staff is here to help treat, diagnose and guide you through every phase of your child’s life.

If you notice your child has developed symptoms of pink eye, schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric specialists.