August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month, a time to focus on protecting and maintaining children’s eye health. Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a common eye condition in school-aged children, but it is often improperly diagnosed, which can sometimes worsen the infection.
What Is Conjunctivitis or Pink Eye?
As school begins, parents can anticipate their children contracting contagious illnesses like the common cold, strep throat and pink eye. Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, develops when infection or allergies irritate the conjunctiva, the mucus membrane that covers the inside of the eyelids and the front of the eye. Pink eye is the most frequently diagnosed eye infection in the United States, infecting up to six million people annually. Typical symptoms of pink eye include the following:
- Pinkness or redness in the white of the eyes
- Increased tear production
- Swelling of the conjunctiva
- Burning or itching
- Feeling like there is a foreign object in the eyes
- An urge to rub the eyes
Three Common Types of Pink Eye
There are three common types of conjunctivitis with three unique causes.
Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye. It is highly contagious and can easily transmit in schools and populated areas. Often occurring in conjunction with a cold, respiratory infection or the flu, viral pink eye can begin in one eye and spread to the other. This type often causes a watery discharge, rather than a thick discharge.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is also very contagious. It often causes sore, red eyes with a thick discharge that causes the eyelids to crust and stick together. Sometimes, bacterial conjunctivitis develops along with an ear infection or strep throat.
Allergic conjunctivitis develops due to an allergic reaction to an environmental irritant like animals, pollen or cigarette smoke. It is not contagious but can cause inflammation, itching and redness.
How to Treat Pink Eye
Most cases of pink eye develop from viruses or allergies and do not respond to antibiotics. Viral conjunctivitis usually improves in one to two weeks without treatment. Although bacterial conjunctivitis responds to antibiotic eye drops, most cases of bacterial pink eye are mild and improve within a week or two without medication.
Unfortunately, doctors overprescribe antibiotics for pink eye symptoms. A study by the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center found that 60 percent of patients with conjunctivitis symptoms receive a prescription for antibiotics, even though antibiotics are often not necessary. In addition, about 20 percent receive antibiotic steroid drops, which can worsen the infection and potentially cause antibiotic resistance.
Call Your Eye Doctor if Your Child Has Pink Eye Symptoms
If your child exhibits symptoms of pink eye, call your ophthalmologist instead of going to a walk-in clinic. Often, conjunctivitis will clear up on its own without medication. Your eye doctor can suggest ways to help your child stay comfortable and prevent spreading the infection to other family members.
Before school begins, schedule a yearly comprehensive eye exam for your family. An eye exam takes less than an hour, and you’ll ensure your family’s vision is healthy and clear when classes resume. You can talk to your eye doctor about any vision or eye concerns you may have. If you are not under the care of a board-certified ophthalmologist, our eye care centers are here to meet your needs.