Common schooltime illnesses: Seeing your way through pink eye

Pink eye is one of the dreaded nuisance diseases of childhood because it is so contagious. With treatment, pink eye – or conjunctivitis – will have no lasting effects, but children can’t go to school or daycare while they have it, and family members are quite susceptible to catching it too.

Knowing when to take action when your child presents with reddened eyes and what to do to keep everyone else healthy is key. As we enter cold and flu season, incidences of pink eye will undoubtedly go up as well.

Recognizing Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the clear membranes covering the whites of the eyes and the membranes on the inner parts of the eyelids. Swollen eyelids, excessive tearing or a mucous discharge from the eye are additional symptoms that often accompany the redness.

Kids also may complain of a feeling that there is something in their eye or that their eye feels dry or sandpapery. A trip to the doctor is warranted with any pink eye symptoms to ensure that he or she can determine the exact cause and proper treatment for the symptoms.

Causes and Treatments

Several different things can cause pink eye, but the three most common are bacteria, viruses and allergic reactions.

Classic bacterial conjunctivitis affects either one or both eyes and includes yellowish or greenish discharge. Kids may wake up to find their eye or eyes crusted shut. A doctor can prescribe antibiotic eye drops and symptoms will most likely start to improve within 24 hours of starting treatment. Children can return to school, daycare or other activities at that point as well.

Viral conjunctivitis is usually associated with cold symptoms and may include tearing and redness in both eyes. Unfortunately, no treatment exists to cure this form of pink eye, so children will have to suffer with the symptoms for between four to seven days. Warm compresses or natural-tear eye drops can help to soothe the discomfort in the meantime. For parents, it is often difficult to decide when to send a child with viral conjunctivitis back to school. If your child is uncomfortable with other symptoms, such as fever, malaise or significant cough, it makes sense to keep them home to recuperate. However if pink eyes are a child’s only symptom, they can likely go back to school sooner – though a note from the doctor’s office may be required to allow re-entry.

Pink eye caused by allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis, usually comes with complaints of eye itchiness as well as other allergy symptoms, and both eyes are generally affected. There can be discharge from the eyes, but it is usually clear and stringy. These symptoms usually subside once the allergen is eliminated or allergy treatment takes effect. Treatments include oral antihistamines or allergy eye drops; both prescription and over-the-counter varieties exist. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious, so children do not need to curtail their activities or avoid school while they cope with their symptoms.

Preventing Contagion

One of the biggest challenges for parents dealing with pink eye is keeping others from catching it. As much as possible, children with pink eye should avoid touching anything after they have touched the affected eye. If only one eye is affected, it is especially important to not touch the other eye.

Other actions parents can take to prevent the spread of pink eye is to change pillowcases frequently, prevent other family members from using the same washcloths and hand towels as the infected family member and to have everyone wash hands frequently.

For older girls, also avoid sharing eye makeup and replace any makeup in use at the time of the infection to prevent reinfection.

As frustrating and irritating as pink eye can be, both for the child who is dealing with the symptoms and the parents who have to treat it, it is a relatively short-lived problem. With proper treatment and preventive measures, it should be over soon, hopefully not to return.

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