A child with pink eye.
Pink eye can be caused by allergies or a virus, like the common cold.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye is a common condition during childhood. Although it is mainly seen in children, teens and adults can also be infected. But what is pink eye? It is known medically as conjunctivitis; "pink eye" is the popular term used by most people. It is the inflammation of one or both eyes due to a bacterial or viral infection or an allergy.

What Are the Causes?

The medical term for pink eye that is caused by an allergy is allergic conjunctivitis, which is not infectious. This type can occur with hay fever, exposure to ragweed, pollen, or even dust mites. An irritant like chlorine or smoke can also trigger a bout of non-infectious pink eye.

However, infectious types can spread to other people. The infection can come from a virus (like the cold virus) or bacteria. Although this infection is not typically a severe condition, it can become a health complication in newborns. A mother who has a sexually transmitted disease (STD) while giving birth can infect her newborn. The newborn can be exposed to the STD when going through the birth canal and may develop pink eye.

To prevent this in newborns, health professionals often screen pregnant women for STDs. Newborns also receive antibiotic eye drops at birth as a preventative measure.

Common Signs and Symptoms

The condition typically only affects one eye, though both may sometimes become infected. The name comes from the reddish-pink appearance of the whites of the eyes and the surrounding tissue; the striking red color is a result from inflammation of the conjunctiva and eye area. The white part of the eye and the inner eyelids may appear fragile and raw. Although it may look serious, most of the time pink eye will go away on its own.

Aside from a red and inflamed eye, symptoms can include pain or discomfort. Some children may complain about a feeling of sand or dirt caught in their eyes. Very often, there may be discharge from the affected eye. Some children may also experience sensitivity to bright light or a headache.

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How Is It Diagnosed?

Although the infection typically goes away without needing medication, it is still essential to seek advice from a healthcare provider if a child might have this health condition. The symptoms of other, more serious, eye disorders can be similar to this one. It's best to have a health professional to make the right diagnosis.

Treatments for Pink Eye

Most cases it will resolve without treatment. Sometimes, an antibiotic eye drop, or ointment might be necessary to treat a bacterial infection. When allergies become an ongoing issue, treatment might require an anti-allergy medication in the form of an eye drop, ointment, or even orally.

Eye drops can be difficult for some children to tolerate. One method to make it easier on them is to place the drops onto the child's inner corner of the eyes once their eyes are closed. Once they open, the drops should flow in over their eyes.

For pain or swelling, using cool or warm compresses on the eyes may provide some relief. These compresses can also be used to soften and remove crusts of eye discharge. Softening crusts before removal helps not to scratch or irritate the eye.

Children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help in relieving pain. Aspirin should never be administered to a child.

How to Prevent Pink Eye

Infectious pink eye is easily transmissible. A child can touch another individual who has pink eye, or an object touched by that person and they can become infected. Pink eye can also spread through contaminated water (such as kiddie pools) or personal items like towels and pillows.

Because children are prone to pink eye, and other childhood infections, teaching appropriate hand washing and hygiene can help prevent pink eye. It's also important to teach children not to touch their faces, especially their eyes. Not sharing personal items, like washcloths, tissues, blankets and pillows, are also good ideas, not only to prevent pink eye but as a general practice.

Pink eye in one eye can also spread to the other eye. Because of this, a child should try to avoid touching their eye and then rubbing the other eye. Parents should also wash their hands after treating the eyes of a child with pink eye. Tissue, gauze, or cotton balls should be discarded immediately after caring for the infected child.

The only way to prevent pink eye caused by allergies is to keep a child’s exposure to the cause of the allergy to a minimum. For example, if the allergy is to dust, clean and vacuum the home often.