‘Pink eye’ is a common moniker for a condition called conjunctivitis. The classic symptoms of conjunctivitis are redness, yellowish discharge during the day and discharge at night that ‘crusts’ the eyelids together by morning. The eyelids and tissue surrounding the eye may also appear puffy. Conjunctivitis is routinely contracted by children attending school, daycare or other facilities where they frequently interact with other children.
Conjunctivitis can be caused by viral or bacterial infections or can be due to allergies. The most common cause is viral, and 50% of patients with viral conjunctivitis will also have symptoms of a cold. As is often the case with the viral-induced flu or colds, we cannot prescribe medicine to reduce the severity or length of conjunctivitis; it simply must run its course.
Consequently, treatment of viral conjunctivitis is quite limited. There is little clinical evidence that topical antibiotics are indicated because secondary bacterial infection is uncommon. Anti-viral medications have also been unsuccessful in clinical trials, but cold compresses may provide symptomatic relief.
Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious and most patients are contagious for at least seven days. Most cases of conjunctivitis will clear within two weeks and don’t require a physician visit. However, you should see an eye doctor if your child experiences extreme light sensitivity, decreased vision, significant pain or inability to open lids due to swelling.
Patients should be advised to avoid direct contact with others for at least one week following the onset of symptoms. In addition, this is an opportunity to discuss good hygiene with your child and explain why frequent hand washing is the most important step in preventing spread of the disease. There is no long-term harm associated with conjunctivitis, but like with all other communicable illnesses, most schools will expect children to stay home until the condition is resolved.
The animation below provides more information on conjunctivitis.