Pink Eye or Conjunctivitis – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

We’ve all been there: waking one of our kiddos to find that one of their eyes won’t open all the way. Glued shut with…you know…stuff. Most of us know enough to know that this could likely be pink eye, or conjunctivitis – same thing. We know it is usually not too concerning, so our immediate thought is, Shoot, does this mean he has to stay home from school? I’m afraid so, Mom. Pink eye is not always contagious but unless you’re positive where it started, teachers will assume it is contagious and are quick to send kiddos home when they have the outward signs of pink eye. Pink eye symptoms are easy to spot but it doesn’t mean we feel prepared. So let’s cover the basics and make sure we know what steps to take next time little Jimmy wakes up looking like a pirate.

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is the medical term for pink eye. The conjunctiva is a clear membrane that lines your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. When it becomes irritated or infected, it turns pink, giving it its name.

What causes pink eye?

The four main causes of pink eye are viruses, bacteria, allergies, or irritants.

  • Viruses (Viral Conjunctivitis): This is the most common cause of pink eye and can jump on board with other common respiratory illnesses, such as a cold or a sore throat. This is very contagious so your little one needs to stay home. It usually starts in one eye but can very easily spread to the other eye. Encourage your kiddo to keep their hands away from their face!
  • Bacteria (Bacterial Conjunctivitis): This is also very contagious and your child should stay home until treated. Some bacteria found its way into the eye, maybe by chance, maybe from a dirty contact lens, maybe associated with an ear infection.
  • Allergies (Allergic Conjunctivitis): This one occurs when allergens irritate the eyes, such as pollen or pet dander. It usually happens in those who struggle with other allergic reactions such as asthma, eczema, or hay fever. It is not contagious!
  • Irritants: This occurs when one or both eyes are irritated from either a foreign body, chemical, dust, or could again be from contact lenses. This is not contagious either.

Kids with pink eye should stay home from child care or school until they have had the antibiotics for 24 hours

What does pink eye look like?

Pink eye symptoms include:

  • Itchy, irritated, or burning eyes
  • Redness or swelling of the eyelid and/or white of the eye
  • Eye discharge (clear, yellow, white, or green)
  • Crusting of the eye overnight, preventing it from opening in the morning
  • Gritty or scratchy feeling in the eye
  • Increased tear production

How to get rid of pink eye?

Pink eye treatment depends on what caused the pink eye to begin with, but there are some things you can do to increase comfort.

If you or your child wear contacts, stop wearing them until the pink eye heals. If the current pair can be thrown away, that is best. If they can’t, disinfect them very well along with the contact case.

If whomever has pink eye wears makeup, stop wearing makeup until the pink eye has healed. If it was caused by a virus or bacteria, consider throwing away whatever makeup was used during that time.

You may try some over-the-counter natural eye drops to relieve some of the discomfort (warning: avoid those that say “get the red out”). Some of them have antihistamine properties which will help if you or your kiddo are struggling with allergies. If the pink eye is caused by a virus, you do not need an antibiotic. If it is from a bacteria, you do need an antibiotic which comes in both eye drop and ointment form. You’ll have to get a prescription from the doctor for antibiotic treatment.

A warm or cold compress on the eye usually provides relief as well. Soak a washcloth in water (whatever temperature you prefer!) and hold it to the eye. Do not use the same washcloth on both eyes, especially if the pink eye is still being contained to one eye. And don’t let anyone else use the washcloth – wash it right away.

Children with pinkeye will complain of a scratchy feeling in their eyes. Viral and bacterial pink eye are both highly contagious

How is pink eye spread? And how to avoid it!

Pink eye is spread by coming in contact with the liquid that drains from the eye while it is infected. This can be direct or indirect contact, meaning you might actually get the liquid on yourself or you might touch something that has the liquid on it, such as a pillowcase.

Tips to avoid spreading pink eye:

  • Wash your hands! Everyone! All the time!
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes. As a general rule, keep your hands away from your face at all times. So many germs are spread this way because our hands get germs on them and then we are bringing those germs into contact with mucous membranes (mouth, nose, eyes). Perfect breeding grounds, my friends.
  • Don’t share makeup, contact lenses, or glasses.
  • Wash pillowcases daily for whichever lucky soul has pink eye. Nobody else use that pillowcase.
  • As mentioned earlier, if using a warm or cold compress, keep it to one eye only and then wash immediately.

When to see a doctor?

  • Pink eye in babies within the first 2 weeks of life should always be seen by a doctor. It may be from something passed on during delivery or it could be a blocked tear duct. Either way, it needs to be evaluated and treated.
  • Moderate or severe pain with the pink eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision
  • If you were given an antibiotic for pink eye and symptoms worsen or don’t improve after 24 hours.
  • If you get pink eye and have pre-existing eye conditions – this may put you at risk for complications.
  • If you get pink eye and have a weakened immune system from something such as cancer treatment or HIV.

How long is pink eye contagious?

I know what you’re really wondering is… When can he go back to school? Yeah, I hear ya! Pink eye is contagious as long as symptoms are present or until on antibiotics for 24 hours. So wait until that 24 hour mark for your kiddo’s return to school or wait until symptoms are completely gone.

Here’s to hoping only one of you gets pink eye and you can all carry on within a few days! This can be a fairly common occurrence, so…until next time…..

Blake WagemanNurse Blake:

Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 11 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents. She also has two daughters who have kept her on her toes from birth all the way into their tween years. Blake’s passion is giving parents not only the information, but also the comfort and confidence they need to make good decisions for their kiddos.

This content is intended for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other healthcare provider.

Learn where Kinsa’s medical information comes from