Archived: The Red Eye

Many parents just hear the term pink eye and immediately have concerns. Whether your child wakes with a red eye with discharge or you receive a letter from school that pink eye is going around in the classroom, it is important knowing some basics so you can be rest assured your little one will be just fine.

What is pink eye?

Pink eye or conjunctivitis is the redness and swelling of the conjunctiva –the thin clear membrane that covers the white part (the sclera) of the eye. This makes the eye look red. Most pink eye is not serious and resolves quickly.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

Depending on the cause the symptoms can vary. I often tell parents to think of pink eye like a cold in the eye. There are many causes of pink eye but most are caused by bacterial or viral infections or allergies. With bacterial pink eye, your child’s eye will be very red and itchy and often painful. There is a lot of discharge in the eye and often your child’s eye when waking up in the morning will be crusted shut. (Don’t worry- this can be easily cleaned off so your child can comfortably open his/her eyes. I’ll explain more below in the treatment). With viral pink eye, your child’s eye will be red and watery but much less discharge than bacterial pink eye. Infectious pink eye, bacterial or viral, may be in one or both eyes. With allergic pink eye, your child’s eye(s) are itchy and very watery and usually both eyes.

How does my child get pink eye?

Infectious, viral and bacterial, pink eye is quite contagious and spread by direct contact. This means if your child’s hands touched someone or something with the infection and they rub their eyes they can get it.

How can I prevent my child from getting pink eye?

Hand washing is the best prevention! Wash those hands! I know this can be a struggle with a toddler but worth the battle. Hand washing is really the best prevention. Clean the tables and chairs, toys and objects that were touched by the hands of someone with pink eye. Also try to have your child avoid rubbing their eyes. Often this may seem near impossible in younger children because their eyes are itchy, but try the best you can to teach them. This is often why viral and bacterial pink eye spreads to both eyes.

How is pink eye treated?

To start, good cleaning of the eyes is important. I suggest taking a wet washcloth, tissue or cotton ball and clean the eye, wiping from the inside side of the eye (near the nose) to the outside. Be sure to use a new cloth or tissue for each eye. Bacterial pink eye is also treated with antibiotics topically, typically drops. Since antibiotics do not work for viruses, they are of no help for viral pink eye. For allergic pink eye, your pediatrician can treat the allergic symptoms your child has if associated with sneezing and runny nose and this often helps the eye symptoms. Wash all the sheets, pillowcases and towels and avoid sharing these items with others as well.

When can my child return to school?

For viral pink eye, the child is contagious while you still see symptoms. When symptoms are improved, your child can return to school. Typically this is within a few days to a week. Antibiotic drops for bacterial pink eye usually clears the symptoms quickly and after 24 hours of starting antibiotics you can return to school.

How do I know when I need to call the pediatrician?

If you suspect your child has pink eye, it is important to always call your pediatrician and be seen in the office.  They can determine the cause and then the best way to treat the pink eye.  Also, because often the same infectious agents causing the eye infection can cause an ear infection at the same time, it is important to always have your child seen in the office to be examined. Pink eye is usually non serious and short lived; however, if your child has pink eye and you notice your child’s pink eye not improving or getting worse, or see redness or swelling around your child’s eye, be sure to call your pediatrician.


Image via Flickr User Bradley Gordon


Alison Mitzner, M.D. is a board certified pediatrician. She received her medical degree from the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse. After completing her pediatric residency at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset NY, she practiced general pediatrics for five years in a private practice in Manhattan, NY. During her years practicing, she was also an attending pediatrician at multiple New York City teaching hospitals where she admitted and examined newborns and pediatric patients. Additionally she supervised and taught hospital residents and medical students in various aspects of clinical and academic medicine. Alison has since moved into the pharmaceutical industry. She has had experience in the industry with leading safety teams and physicians and currently mentors many physicians globally.
Alison enjoys sharing her knowledge and experiences as a pediatrician (and mom) with other moms and dads in addition to supporting moms-to-be. She has contributed to various online websites and blogs. She also has an interest for creating healthier lifestyles and safer environments for pregnant women and children. Her outside interests include working out, acting, piano, guitar, dance, and being a mom!

You can find Alison at and follow on Instagram @alisonmitznermd

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