Pink eye—also called conjunctivitis—is the most common eye problem among children. Pink eye occurs when the lining of the eye and eyelid become irritated or infected, resulting in redness and inflammation. Both eyes are often affected at the same time. Your child will experience burning or itching, possibly thinking there is something in the affected eye. You may see a white or yellowish discharge coming from the eye that crusts over at night, making it hard to open them in the morning. A warm, wet washcloth will help soften the crust and will also be soothing.
Conjunctivitis that is caused by an infection is highly contagious through contact with infected fluids. Because it is usually caused by a virus, the only treatment is time as viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. It usually takes over a week for a case of viral pink eye to clear up on its own. During this time, your child is highly contagious so be careful to wash your hands frequently and not share things like towels, washcloths, or eye drops in order to prevent the spread of infection.
More rarely, pink eye can be bacterial. Bacterial infections usually involve only one eye and can be accompanied by swelling all around the eye. If you are concerned that something more serious is going on, be sure to let your pediatrician take a look to determine the best treatment. In this case, your pediatrician will prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment to clear up the infection. Be sure to use this medicine exactly as your doctor prescribes it. Don’t stop using it early just because your child’s eyes seem better.
The simplest way to soothe irritated little eyes is to use a warm or cool compress, depending on what your child prefers.
Allergies can also cause conjunctivitis, but this type is not contagious. If your doctor thinks it is caused by allergies, your child might be prescribed eye drops for allergies. In infants, conjunctivitis is sometimes caused by a blocked tear duct. Your doctor can show you how to gently massage the corner of your baby’s eyes to help the duct open fully.
The simplest way to soothe irritated little eyes is to use a warm or cool compress, depending on what your child prefers. If only one eye is affected, be careful not to touch the unaffected eye with the compress or you could spread the infection. In a week or so, your child should be feeling much better.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019
- Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is the most common childhood eye problem and is very contagious.
- Conjunctivitis can be caused by a bacteria, a virus, allergies, or a blocked tear duct in infants.
- Antibiotics will not help a viral infection.
- Usually, pink eye goes away on its own in a week or so.