Sometimes children can seem like walking Petri dishes, constantly coming home from school with one illness or another. One of the more common schoolyard ailments is what’s known as pink eye. While pink eye can affect people of any age, it is most common in school-aged children, and most of us have had a child come home with it at least once. But what exactly is pink eye, and what are the best methods for preventing and treating it?

What is pink eye?

Pink eye is the colloquial term for conjunctivitis, a common type of eye infection. Conjunctivitis refers to an inflammation of the conjunctiva, meaning the inner eyelids and visible white part of the eye. Pink eye isn’t actually one specific ailment. It’s a blanket term for a lot of different eye infections.

Conjunctivitis can be caused by either an allergic reaction or an infection from bacteria or a virus. While allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious, conjunctivitis caused by bacteria or viruses is extremely contagious and can spread like wildfire through a group of children. Breakouts in schools and nurseries are not uncommon.

It is also possible for pink eye to be caused by STDs like chlamydia. This is usually seen in newborns who contract the infection in their eyes from their mothers during birth. Prenatal STD screenings can alert doctors to the possibility of infection even if symptoms are not present in the mother. Doing so gives medical staff the opportunity to prevent the transfer of the infection during birth.

Common causes of pink eye

Most cases of pink eye can be traced back to the same bacteria or viruses that cause the common cold, sinus infections or ear infections. In order for a person to get pink eye, the contaminant has to physically reach their eye. This usually happens when a person touches a contaminated object and then touches their eye or the skin around their eye. However, the germs behind pink eye can also be caught from other situations, such as:

  • Sharing pillows, towels, or other items that touch the eyes
  • Sharing eye makeup
  • Swimming in contaminated water

Children who wear contact lenses may be at a greater risk of pink eye than those who don’t. If your child develops pink eye more than once, consider switching them to prescription eyeglasses instead.


The most obvious symptom of pink eye is an unexplained redness around the white of one or both eyes along with uncomfortable discharge. Your child may also complain of one or more of the following:

  • Vision changes
  • A “sandy” feeling in the affected eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Itching or burning
  • Increased tear production
  • Other cold or allergy symptoms


The treatment for pink eye will vary depending on the cause. For allergic cases, antihistamines and cold compresses are usually all that is needed. Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotics. Viral pink eye, on the other hand, may just be left to run its course under medical supervision.

How to prevent it

It can be hard to keep young children from coming home covered in their classmates’ germs, but there are some things you can do to lessen your child’s odds of catching pink eye.

  1. Avoid playdates with children who have obvious symptoms of pink eye
  2. Teach your child good hygiene and tell them to avoid touching their eyes
  3. Do not let your child share towels or swimming goggles with other children
  4. Close windows and try to avoid allergens if your child is prone to allergic conjunctivitis
  5. Sunglasses may also help lessen the risk of allergic conjunctivitis by blocking irritants

If your child has already been diagnosed with pink eye, you may be asked to keep them home from school for a few days. Your child will be contagious as soon as they begin to show symptoms. After treatment has gotten underway, the level of contagiousness will go down.

It is advisable to thoroughly wash all pillowcases, sheets, and similar materials to avoid recontamination. If you child is old enough to have eye makeup, throw it all away after the pink eye diagnosis. Buying a new tube of mascara is a small price to pay to avoid a second round of antibiotics.

When to consult a doctor

If your child complains of vision changes, chronic eye pain, or shows unexplained redness or discharge from the eyes, they should immediately see a doctor. Pink eye is usually not a very serious condition and can be easily treated, but it is usually extremely contagious. Getting swift treatments is always a good idea.

Some more serious eye conditions may manifest with symptoms similar to that of pink eye. It is important never to assume that a child’s eye issue is “only pink eye” without consulting a doctor to first rule out any more dangerous problems.

Pink eye should clear up after a few days of treatment. If a week or more has passed with no improvement, call your doctor again.

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