Pink eye is the general term for conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the membrane that covers the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelids.  There are many possible causes of pink eye, including bacteria, viruses, allergens or exposure to external irritants.  Pink eye is a common occurrence in children.  While some cases are uncomplicated, and will resolve within a few days, many cases require prompt treatment to prevent an infection from worsening or spreading. 

Sometimes, redness of the eyes may even signal a more serious condition such as physical injury or internal inflammation of the eye, which can cause vision loss if left untreated.  For this reason, red eye in children warrants professional examination by an optometrist.  Optometrists have the proper training and equipment to determine the specific cause of red eye and then to prescribe appropriate treatment. 

Simple pink eye usually appears as a diffuse redness of the conjunctiva, or white part of the eye, along with a watery discharge.  It may begin in one eye, but soon involves both eyes.  Vision remains good and there is no pain other than a mild discomfort or ache.  The onset of the pink eye may be associated with a mild cold / flu, or, it may occur after exposure to chlorinated swimming pools, dusty environments or seasonal plants and flowers.   Such cases of simple pink eye often resolve within a few days. 

The warning signs of more serious cases of red eye that require prompt examination and treatment include:

Redness: •    In one eye only •    That improves but then returns after a few days •    Extending in a dense circular pattern around the coloured part of the eye •    Presenting in a solid, dense, bright patch •    Extending along the lid margins, sometimes with scales or flakes •    Involving more than half of the eyelid, especially if the lid also is swollen

Discharge: •    That is green in colour •    That causes the eyelashes to matt together •    That is sticky and stringy or ropy

Associated signs or symptoms, such as: •    Pain (any kind of pain is of concern:  pain to touch, pain in bright light, pain on eye movement) •    Fever •    Blurred vision •    Itchiness or excessive rubbing or blinking •    Unequal pupil sizes or reaction to light •    Increased sensitivity to bright light •    Swollen or bulging appearance to the eyes •    Any debris in the eye or any cuts / scratches around the eye

A recent history of: •    Exposure to chemicals or allergens •    Contact with another person with pink eye •    Injury to the eye (finger poke, paper cut, dust, insect bite, etc.) •    Ear infection or other illness

Treatment of pink eye often involves prescription eye drops to reduce infection, allergy and/or inflammation.  In severe cases, oral medication (pills or liquid) also may be needed.

Non-prescription artificial tear drops may be used to lubricate the eye, as needed.  These are especially soothing if cooled in the refrigerator before use.  The use of other over-the-counter eye drops is not recommended in children, without the advice of a doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist.

Good hygiene is an important part of treatment.  Gentle cleansing of the eyelids and lashes with warm water is recommended.   Careful hand-washing will decrease the risk of spreading contagious forms of pink eye to other family members or friends.  It may be necessary for the child to stay home from daycare or school, until the pink eye resolves.

Professional examination by an optometrist is recommended as the best course of action in dealing with pink eye.  To find an optometrist in your community click herevisit the Eye See Eye Learn website or call   855-424-3735  to find an optometrist participating in that program. Author: Dr Catherine Chiarelli March 2011