May 6, 2014, 6:22:32 AM CDT Mar 17, 2023, 8:01:54 PM CDT

"Icky" stuff kids get: Pink eye

How to treat and prevent pink eye in children

Little boy rubbing his eyes Little boy rubbing his eyes

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the thin membrane that covers the inner eyelids and white surface of the eye. It may sound (and look) scary, but pink eye in children is usually mild and often goes away on its own.

“Pink eye is an extremely common condition in kids,” says LeAnn Kridelbaugh, M.D., pediatrician with Children's Health℠. “While it’s not comfortable, it’s usually not a cause for concern and can easily be treated.” Dr. Kridelbaugh notes that if your newborn has pink eye, you should see a doctor.

What causes pink eye?

Viruses, bacteria and allergens or other irritants such as pet dander or smoke all cause pink eye in kids. In newborns, it may the result of eye drops used to prevent other conditions.

How do you know if your child has pink eye?

Symptoms of pink eye may differ depending on the cause, but they most often include:

  • Redness or swelling of the white part of the eye or inside the eyelids
  • Itchy or burning eyes
  • Increased tearing
  • White, yellow or green eye discharge, which may cause crusting on the eyelids or lashes

When should you see a doctor?

See a doctor if your child has moderate to severe pain, blurred vision or increased light sensitivity. Also, contact your doctor your child has been treated for bacterial pink eye that’s not getting better with antibiotics.

Pink eye in newborns

Pink eye in newborns can be the result of infections, but it may also be due to a blocked tear duct. Sometimes, chemicals in eye drops or ointments used to prevent pink eye can cause pink eye in newborns as well. In rare cases, a mother can pass along a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as chlamydia or herpes to her baby during birth. Newborn babies with pink eye symptoms should be seen by a health care provider right away.

Treating pink eye

Treatment of pink eye will depend on your child’s symptoms and the cause of the condition. Viral pink eye usually goes away on its own. If pink eye is bacterial, your child’s doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. If the pink eye is the result of allergies, allergy medicines like antihistamines can help. Sometimes, prescription eye drops are used to treat allergen-related conjunctivitis.

You can help your child find relief by putting cool compresses on their eyes. You can also wipe the eye with warm water and a washcloth to help remove the crusting around the eyes.

How long is pink eye contagious?

Viral and bacterial pink eye are extremely contagious. The infection can spread from one eye to the other by touching the affected eye or fluid from the eye, and it can also spread to other people. Fluid from the eye is still contagious for 24 to 48 hours after starting treatment.

Preventing pink eye

Pink eye spreads rapidly. The best way to avoid it is to make sure your child washes his or her hands frequently with soap and water. You should also encourage your child not to share personal items like eye drops, wash cloths or eye makeup.

Screen capture of family newsletter signup

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the Children's Health Family Newsletter.

Children's Health will not sell, share or rent your information to third parties. Please read our privacy policy.

Children's Health Family Newsletter

Get health tips and parenting advice from Children's Health experts sent straight to your inbox twice a month.

epidemiology, eye, immunology, infectious diseases, microbiology

Childrens Health