What Your Eye Doctor Wants You To Know About Your Kid’s 'Pink Eye'

by Andrea Cottrell, M.D.
Originally Published: 
A portrait of a brunette girl suffering from pink eye
Sasiistock / Getty

School is underway, and that means plenty of opportunities for kids to share germs. It’s only a matter of time before daycare or the school nurse calls because your child has conjunctivitis (or pink eye). Although conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacteria or allergens, most of these sudden onset cases are caused by viruses. The conjunctiva is the tissue covering the white portion (sclera) of the eyes, as well as the underside of the eyelids.

1. You don’t have to call your pediatrician or urgent care office for antibiotics every time. Instead, call your eye doctor.

Run-of-the-mill viral conjunctivitis is caused by the same germs that cause the common cold. In fact, there is a good chance your child already has a cold. Which means that the antibiotic eye drops you want are not going to be helpful. In fact, along with their high cost, they can sometimes cause more eye irritation and prolong recovery. But that doesn’t stop many parents from walking out of the doctor’s office with a prescription anyway.

2. Parents and daycares need to stop demanding antibiotic eye drops.

Some parents just feel better using antibiotics, and other parents just don’t have a choice. Many child care providers will only accept children back with a doctor’s note confirming that antibiotics have been prescribed, regardless or whether or not the conjunctivitis is still raging. Unfortunately, returning to school with a red, infected eye just means exposing everyone else to the virus. And we all know that using antibiotics inappropriately contributes to antibiotic resistance. In fact, as many as 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions may be unnecessary, according to the CDC.

3. Stop buying drops to “get the red out.” There is never a reason to use them.

These drops do nothing for the infection, but they can lead to severe redness and irritation once they are stopped (rebound redness). Instead, use warm compresses to soothe the eyes and surrounding skin, and remove some of those eyelash crusts. Regular artificial tears can also be helpful, especially if kept cold in the refrigerator. However, remember that those extra tears that end up running down the side of your child’s face after you administer the drops contain viral particles that can spread the infection.

4. Stop touching your eyes!

The best illness prevention is regular hand washing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless you have freshly washed hands. Because viral conjunctivitis is extremely contagious, I recommend patients wash everything that has touched their face in very hot water to avoid sharing this nastiness with the entire family. This includes pillow cases, towels, and clothing. It’s not a bad idea to also sanitize door knobs, light switches, and the remote control. Despite all this, if your child sneezes in your face, there isn’t much you can do except hope for the best.

5. Know when it’s okay to leave the house.

As soon as your child’s eyes look normal they are no longer contagious. Depending on the virus, this can take just a few days, or it can last a couple weeks. The good news is that most cases will resolve on their own with time. However, if your child’s vision is affected, or if severe pain, light sensitivity, skin blisters, or pus is present, then a trip to your ophthalmologist or optometrist is warranted.

It’s also a good idea to see the ophthalmologist or optometrist if your child’s conjunctivitis isn’t improving on its own by the second or third day to confirm the diagnosis.

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