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Pink Eye in Kids is Usually Mild but Often Contagious

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Pink Eye related image Photo: Getty Images

Pink eye or conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the clear membrane, known as the conjunctiva, which covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this common childhood ailment can be the result of allergic inflammation or a bacterial or viral infection.

Newborns are vulnerable to pink eye, too, and if left untreated, neonatal conjunctivitis infections can cause complications. Symptoms include an overall eye discomfort, as if there is sand in the eye. Both the eye and eyelid appear red and sometimes swollen. In the morning, many children awaken with dried discharge that can cause the eyelids to stick together.

Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious and is usually seen in kids with other known allergies like hay fever or animal dander. Contact with other allergens, like smoke or pool chlorine, can also result in allergic conjunctivitis.

Cases of contagious pink eye, however, are often the result of the same bacteria and viruses that cause colds, ear infections, or sore throats. Your child’s doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment if the cause of the infection is bacteria and may recommend a day or two away from school, while contagious.

Conjunctivitis in newborns can have several causes. The bacteria related to the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause pink eye. If a baby is born to a mother with an STD, the bacteria or virus can pass into baby’s eyes from the birth canal, causing infection.

According to the CDC, neonatal conjunctivitis infections caused by an STD are serious. As a result, newborns are given preventative antibiotic eye drops right after birth. Sometimes these eye drops give newborn infants a chemical conjunctivitis that disappears on its own. Newborn babies that are born with a narrow or blocked tear duct may also develop conjunctivitis.

Parents can help prevent pink eye by teaching kids to wash hands often. CDC recommends that children with active pink eye infections should not share tissues, pillows, towels, or washcloths. Older children should not share eye makeup or eye drops. To help prevent allergic conjunctivitis, dust and vacuum regularly and avoid open windows on high pollen count days.

According to the KidsHealth website, while many cases of conjunctivitis clear up on their own, parents should contact a physician if things have not improved after a week of no treatment or after two or three days of prescribed treatment.

Parents should call a doctor if their child experiences a change in vision, severe pain, or sensitivity to light. KidsHealth also recommends alerting a doctor if your child’s case of pink eye worsens and he or she develops a fever. Worsening symptoms and a fever can mean the infection has spread past the conjunctiva and new treatment is required to stop the infection.


Center for Disease Control. Pink Eye: Usually Mild and Easy to Treat. Web. 19, Dec. 2011.

KidsHealth. Conjunctivitis. Web. 19, Dec. 2011.

Reviewed December 20, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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