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The Perils of Pinkeye

By Krista Elliott

So the kids have been back to school for a few months now, giving plenty of time for the petri-dish that is your local elementary school to cook up some real doozies in the communicable disease department. You've got your colds and your stomach bugs and all that good stuff. But very little strikes more fear into the hearts of parents and educators than the dreaded breakout of pinkeye. It's right up there with lice for "conditions you really don't want going around your kid's school, but you know they're inevitable anyway." 

Why is pinkeye such a hassle, and what should you do if your kid gets it? 

What is Pinkeye? 

Pinkeye is a general term for a condition called conjunctivitis. It's defined by redness and swelling of the conjunctiva (the mucus membrane on the surface of your eyeballs and the insides of your eyelids).

What a lot of people don't realize is that pinkeye can actually be caused by a few different things:

  • Viral - Viral conjunctivitis is caused by (you guessed it) a virus — one that is associated with respiratory diseases and the common cold. So when people talk about having a cold in their eyes, this is what they mean. In other cases, pinkeye can be caused by the herpes virus. Symptoms include itchy, red eyes, with the inside of the eyelid being red and swolen. A clear or light eye discharge may be present. 
  • Bacterial -  Bacterial conjunctivitis is less innocuous, and is caused by things like staph infections, the Streptococcus bacteria, or gonorrhea. Symptoms are similar to viral conjunctivitis, but the eye will likely be more swollen, and there will be thick yellow or grayish discharge from the eye. Bacterial conjunctivitis can lead to serious eye problems like corneal ulcers or cellulitis, so it's imperative to seek medical care if you think you have a bacterial eye infection. 
  • Allergic - Allergic conjunctivitis isn't contagious, as it's caused by allergies. The eyes feel swollen and gritty, itchy, and watery. Allergic conjunctivitis is more annoying than dangerous, unless you have an outbreak while driving or operating machinery. 

How Do I Treat It? 

So if you or your child have pinkeye, the important thing is to try to keep it from spreading. Viral and bacterial pinkeye are the craft glitter of childhood diseases — it gets everywhere and can be really hard to eradicate. To avoid spreading pinkeye, it is best to avoid school or work for 3 to 5 days, and to be conscientous about hand-washing and fresh washcloth use. 

Viral pinkeye can't be treated with medication, unless it's caused by the herpes virus, in which case antiviral medicines will be in order. In any case, artificial tears and warm, moist compresses may help provide some relief. For bacterial pinkeye, antibiotics tend to be needed to clear it up. If the case is mild, over-the-counter antibacterial eyedrops can work well (good luck getting your child to hold still for them, though). In more severe cases, prescription antibiotics may be needed. If you are unsure what kind of pinkeye is present, check with your doctor. 

There's no doubt that pinkeye is a pain. But hopefully with vigilant hygeine and appropriate treatment, you'll soon be eyeing a pinkeye-free family. 

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