Dr. Lisa Thornton, a
mother of three, writes the Health Matters monthly
column for Chicago Parent as is the voice behind "The Doctor is In," a Chicago Parent
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Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a very common,
highly contagious infection that strikes countless children every
year. Fortunately the infection is usually harmless and easily
Eyes have a lot of blood vessels and when the thin, clear
covering of the eye (the conjunctiva) gets infected, the blood
vessels swell, blood rushes to the eyes and the white part of the
eyes looks pink. Several things can cause conjunctivitis, but in
general, when people use the term "pink eye" they are referring to
the contagious infection.
Pink eye can affect one or both eyes. The most common
symptoms are redness, itchiness, a gritty feeling in the eyes,
increased tearing, a discharge that forms a crust overnight and
occasionally eye pain.
Pink eye can rapidly spread from child to child through
contact so epidemics can easily break out in classrooms and day
care centers. It is almost impossible to keep children from rubbing
their eyes and it's even more difficult to keep children from
touching each other while they play so to limit the spread of
infection some facilities will ask that parents keep children home
until treatment is started.
Even though it won't cause serious problems, pink eye can
be uncomfortable and annoying. It can be caused by viruses or
bacteria. Generally viruses will cause a thin, watery eye drainage
while bacteria will cause a thick, yellow drainage that crusts on
Call your doctor if you think your child has pink eye.
This will help protect other people from catching it. Your doctor
will usually take a detailed history to try to find out if the
cause is bacterial or viral. In some cases there isn't an infection
at all and the pink color is caused by an allergy or from a foreign
body in the eye like a spec of dust or an eyelash. A general
examination of the head and neck will be done looking for other
signs of infection. A special light called a slit lamp may be used
to narrow down the possibilities. Eye cultures are rarely taken for
a simple conjunctivitis, but if it doesn't clear up with treatment,
a more detailed evaluation may be needed.
Treatment of pink eye consists of antibiotic eye drops or
ointments that are given several times during the day and less
frequently at night. Warm compresses to closed eyes can also help.
Children usually start to feel better after a few doses of
medication, but treatment should continue for the full prescribed
course to ensure the infection is completely gone.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.
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