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Seeing Red: The Facts About Pink Eye


pink eye

Most parents are no strangers to the signs of pink eye. Those red, icky eyes crusted shut in the morning are a sure ticket for a day off of school. But what do you really know about the condition?

What exactly is pink eye? 

Pink eye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the normally clear mucus membrane lining the sclera (white part of the eye) and the eyelids. Adults can get it, but pink eye is more common in children. It’s clear to see where the condition gets its nickname, but medical professionals prefer a less ambiguous term.

“Most doctors object to use of the term pink eye, because there are so many things that can cause redness in the eye,” says William R. Marcolini, OD, and president of the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians, who refers to the highly contagious condition by its medical name, conjunctivitis.

What causes pink eye? 

A virus, bacteria, allergen, or irritant can all cause conjunctivitis. Many of the viruses associated with colds, upper respiratory infections, or sore throats are the same ones that lead to conjunctivitis. And allergens can trigger an episode of non-contagious pink eye. 

Viral or bacterial conjunctivitis is easily spread from one eye to the other and even from person to person. Very dry air, sun exposure, irritants, allergies, and trauma can lead to eye redness, but it can’t be spread.

Pink eye is more common in children than adults and is prevalent in early spring and late fall.  

How should you treat pink eye? 

Check with your eye doctor if you suspect your child has pink eye. Most schools require a doctor’s note to return to classes, but there are other reasons to seek medical care, too.

Occasionally, certain viral and bacterial strains that cause conjunctivitis can lead to corneal infection or other serious eye problems, so a professional diagnosis is always recommended, especially when there’s pain. “Conjunctivitis can be uncomfortable, but typically it doesn’t cause pain. If the eye hurts, you should definitely get it checked out,” says Marcolini. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis responds well to prescription antibiotic eye drops, but if the infection is viral, antibiotics won’t help. “Viral conjunctivitis is a self-limiting infection,” Marcolini explains. As such, viral conjunctivitis should clear up on its own. 

What are the signs & symptoms?

Symptoms of conjunctivitis differ depending on the cause, but all pink eye causes some degree of redness. 

  • Viral: Most cases of pink eye are viral. There’s a thin, clear discharge, which may occur along with other cold-type symptoms. Eyes can be swollen, painful, or light sensitive.
  • Bacterial: Swelling, pain, itching, and redness come on suddenly. The thick yellow/green discharge can make eyes sticky and hard to open in the morning. 
  • Allergic: Usually accompanied by other allergy symptoms, allergic conjunctivitis causes itching, tearing, and puffiness.
  • Chemical: Airborne irritants including cleaning products, sprays, smoke, and smog can irritate the eyes causing them to be red and watery. 

Calming Comfort

  • Cold compresses to reduce swelling caused by inflammation 
  • Artificial tears to relieve dryness
  • Over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops for itching

Nita Crighton is a registered nurse and mom of three from Harding Township. 


Has your child been plagued with pink eye? How did you comfort them?

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