"M-o-m! I can't open my eye!" Before I even made it up the stairs to my 7-year-old's room that morning, I already knew what to expect--at least one pink, gooey eye with the eyelashes crusted together. She'd had conjunctivitis a year or so before and it sounded like we were in for another round. Using damp cotton balls, I gently bathed her eyelid until it was "unstuck" enough to open. "Whew, I can see. It's a miracle," she sighed with relief.
Conjunctivitis--which many of us know as "pinkeye"--is one of the most common eye conditions in children and adults. "Almost everyone will have pinkeye at some time in his life," says David L. Rogers, M.D., clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at The Ohio State University, director of research in the department of ophthalmology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and a member of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (AAPOS). Since the odds are good that you'll find yourself caring for a child with conjunctivitis, it's good to know the basics about the condition.
What It Is
Conjunctivitis is the inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. Pinkeye can occur in one or both eyes. The most common causes of conjunctivitis are viruses, bacteria, and allergens (for example, pollen, dust mites, molds, and animal dander), says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What to Look For
According to the CDC, the symptoms of pinkeye usually include:
- Redness or swelling of the white of the eye or inside the eyelid. This often occurs in one eye if the conjunctivitis is bacterial, and in both eyes if it is viral or caused by an allergic reaction.
- An increased amount of tears
- White, yellow, or green discharge from the eyes
- Itchy or irritated eyes
- Burning eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- A gritty feeling in the eye or the urge to rub the eye
- Crusty eyelids and/or eyelashes, often when waking up in the morning
How to Treat It
The treatment for pinkeye varies depending on what's causing the condition. If your child has bacterial conjunctivitis, his pediatrician will likely prescribe antibiotic eye drops or eye ointment. Antibiotics won't help viral conjunctivitis, though. "Viral conjunctivitis has to run its course and usually lasts for seven to 14 days," says Dr. Rogers. Cases of allergic conjunctivitis can be treated with the use of allergy eye drops, say the experts at AAPOS. In any case, you can bathe the eyelids with a cotton ball soaked in warm water to keep them from sticking together.
How to Prevent Pinkeye
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both contagious. The number-one way to prevent your child from getting either is to teach her to make careful handwashing a habit. If someone in your house has pinkeye, you'll want to be extra vigilant about handwashing. Also, be sure that the infected person doesn't share linens such as washcloths, towels, or pillows with anyone else in the family.
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