By Dr. Sidney Weiss, pediatric ophthalmologist at CHOC
‘Pink eye’ is a common term for a viral infection of the conjunctiva of the eye- also called viral conjunctivitis. When a child gets pink eye, this means there is an inflammation of the membranes covering the inner eyelid and the whites of the eye. This can occur in one or both of the eyes. It may appear alone, or as part of a generalized upper respiratory infection involving fever, sore throat and nasal blockage.
It has also been called ‘swimming pool conjunctivitis’ because the infection is often spread in swimming pools. Chlorine in swimming pool water does not effectively kill viruses nor does it prevent the spread of this infection.
Besides being characterized by pink or even red eyes, there is often some drainage from the eye that may include a colored discharge, or clear tears. The infection is contagious so long as the eye is red and especially so long as discharge is coming from the eye. Your child may complain of sensitivity to light, eye discomfort and blurry vision. Pink eye may be uncomfortable, but very rarely will it threaten vision. If the child’s cornea becomes affected, the vision may be affected more significantly. If you suspect this, consult your child’s pediatrician.
Viral conjunctivitis usually resolves on its own within a few days. If you do consult your pediatrician, they may recommend supportive care, such as increased hygiene, removing the discharge as it appears, and frequent hand washing. They also may prescribe a topical antibiotic for the eye in order to prevent a super-infection by bacteria.
There are several other potential causes of pink or red eyes.
Bacterial infections of the eye are less common than viral infections, but the signs and symptoms are quite similar, including a red or pink coloring, sensitivity to light, and eye discomfort. The discharge associated with bacterial infections tends to be thicker and more colorful. Antibiotic drops are generally quite effective in resolving these infections.
Eyes that appear to have a pink tone do not necessarily mean that a virus is present. Dry eyes, environmental toxins, and eyes allergic to environmental irritants may appear pink, and may even have a clear discharge.
Allergies are also a very common cause of pink or even red eyes, with itching being a common characteristic. The whites of the eye may even appear swollen, and a clear or off-white discharge is common. Topical over-the-counter antihistamines are generally effective in moderate cases, but prescription topical steroid drops may be necessary to resolve the tougher cases.