Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is an often contagious condition that causes inflammation in the eyelid. It is usually caused by infection, irritants or allergies and can often spread quickly among people in close proximity.
For kids, conjunctivitis is especially common and can quickly spread throughout a classroom, football team or family. Usually, conjunctivitis gets better without treatment but it can have more serious causes and complications that may need medical attention.
Treating conjunctivitis and stopping its spread can prevent a lot of discomfort and help children maintain healthy eyes. In this guide, we’ll offer advice and information for parents and caregivers to effectively manage this condition in its various forms, understand what causes it and prevent it from spreading to other families.
Identifying Common Conjunctivitis Symptoms in Children
Figuring out what is causing symptoms can be tricky, especially with young children. Here are the main symptoms of conjunctivitis and some tips on how to identify them:
- Red or pink eyes. This could affect one or both eyes and is the symptom most commonly associated with conjunctivitis.
- Swollen or inflamed eyelids. Conjunctivitis causes the inner eyelid to become inflamed, which may make it appear puffy and swollen.
- The eyes will often leak clear fluid or pus.
- Light sensitivity. Children may experience mild pain when confronted with bright light, so they often try to avoid it and may squint more often.
- Flu-like symptoms. In cases of viral conjunctivitis, children may experience flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headache, sore throat and fever.
Conjunctivitis is sometimes confused with other conditions like dry eye. Telling the difference can be challenging, but you should look out for intense red or pink eyes and discharge as these symptoms do not usually appear with dry eye.
If in doubt, it is wise to see an optometrist so they can accurately diagnose the condition. There are many different kinds of conjunctivitis and some are more serious than others.
Unveiling the Causes and Risk Factors of Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, allergies and chemicals. Children are at greater risk of the condition and understanding these different causes can help you prevent it and to stop it from spreading to other children.
Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are infectious. The large majority of conjunctivitis cases are viral. Usually caused by adenoviruses (the same ones that cause the common cold), this type of pink eye can spread very easily through contact with discharge from the eyes, coughing and sneezing, and contaminated water or objects.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is much more rare. This type is caused by various bacterial infections and can also be spread through direct contact and contaminated objects.
Allergic conjunctivitis is non-infectious so you can’t get it from other people. It’s most common in people who have other allergic reactions like hay fever, asthma and eczema. The trigger for allergic conjunctivitis includes pollen, dust mites, animals, cosmetics, medications and improper use of contact lenses.
Chemical conjunctivitis is a less common type caused by irritants or pollutants, which could be a household item like shampoo or something they encounter elsewhere like chlorine. It’s also not spreadable, so avoiding it is a matter of avoiding triggering chemicals.
Navigating Diagnosis and Seeking Medical Attention
Conjunctivitis can be diagnosed by a doctor or optician during an eye examination. Both can recommend treatment options to help you manage the condition.
Diagnosis will involve an examination of the eye and eyelid and a discussion of whether your child may have been exposed to an allergen or irritant, or a viral or bacterial infection. They may also carry out a visual acuity test to see if their eyesight has been affected.
It can be challenging to know when to seek medical attention, especially with conditions that may go away on their own. Nevertheless, some cases of conjunctivitis can become severe or have an underlying cause that needs treatment, so when your child experiences persistent symptoms or severe discomfort we recommend you get in touch with a medical professional.
Also, signs that the swelling may be spreading, thick discharge from the eyes and changes in your child’s vision may indicate a more serious infection.
Effective Treatment Approaches for Children's Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis usually clears us up on its own in between one and two weeks. Keeping your child’s eyes and eyelids clean and clear of debris can help to relieve discomfort and help the healing process.
In some cases, treatment may be required. For bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic eye drops can be used to treat the infection. Usually, they’ll need to be applied a few times a day.
For allergic conjunctivitis, the underlying allergy will need to be treated. This may mean avoiding the allergen that’s causing it or using anti-allergy medication like antihistamines.
For chemical conjunctivitis, the irritants need to be avoided, which will allow the inflammation to subside.
Preventive Strategies to Stop Conjunctivitis Spread
While conjunctivitis will usually go away on its own, it's important to stop it from spreading to other people.
You may opt to keep your child out of school, but this is not always necessary if they are not feeling too unwell and can follow several hygiene practices.
- Hand washing. Regular hand washing with warm water and soup for 20 seconds will help to stop the spread of the bacteria or virus.
- Avoid touching or rubbing the affected area. This can be a tricky one. Because the condition causes irritation, children are often tempted to rub or touch their eyes and eyelids. This can slow down the healing process and spread the condition, so it is vital to discourage this behaviour as much as possible.
- Wash towels, pillowcases, clothes, etc. Conjunctivitis can spread through objects so you should wash anything that comes into contact with your child’s eyes regularly.
- Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. Bacteria and viruses can spread in different ways, and if your child is coughing and sneezing this is another way conjunctivitis may spread.
Supporting Kids with Pink Eye: Comfort and Care
Conjunctivitis can be uncomfortable and even painful for kids, but it can also cause self-consciousness and embarrassment. Helping your child manage their symptoms and supporting them emotionally will help their overall recovery.
First and foremost, you should help them to feel comfortable. If they experience light sensitivity, keeping them in a dim room is a helpful way to minimise discomfort. Avoiding activities that strain the eyes like using screens and reading can be helpful – audiobooks are a useful alternative.
Conjunctivitis is temporary and reminding them of this can help them feel better about the discomfort. The condition is also common and catching it is not their fault – in general, staying understanding and positive can help them feel better about the experience.
Debunking Myths Surrounding Children's Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis is a common condition and there are several myths and misconceptions that are worth debunking here.
Myth 1: Every case of conjunctivitis is contagious. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious, but allergic and chemical conjunctivitis are not. A medical professional can help to determine which kind of conjunctivitis your child is experiencing.
Myth 2: Conjunctivitis only affects the eyes. While the most common symptoms are eye-related, many people experience sore throats, headaches and other flu-like symptoms.
Myth 3: Conjunctivitis causes blindness. The condition can cause changes to your vision, but these are usually temporary. In very rare cases an infected eye may lead to some form of vision loss.
Serious complications from conjunctivitis usually occur when a bacterial infection becomes more severe and is left untreated. This is why when severe or persistent symptoms are present, you should always seek medical attention.
Myth 4. Pink Eye Always Requires Medical Treatment. Most cases of conjunctivitis will clear up on their own in between 1 and 2 weeks. If the symptoms are persistent, cause serious discomfort or changes to vision, it’s advisable to contact a healthcare professional.
Returning to School: Guidelines for Pink Eye Recovery
Whether your child should stay home from school or daycare is a decision that you will have to make as their parent and caregiver. Many schools have policies about conditions like pink eye, which help you decide what to do. Often, your child will feel unwell and in these instances, it is usually better to keep them at home.
If you’re not sure about when your child should return to school, there are a few things to consider:
What did your doctor or optometrist advise? If you opted to consult a healthcare professional you should always follow their advice on when it will be best for your child to return to school.
Have their symptoms subsided? Children who are symptom-free will be less uncomfortable and less likely to be contagious.
Is your child practising good hygiene? Children who are washing their hands regularly, avoid rubbing their eyes covering their mouths when sneezing and coughing will be less likely to spread the condition.
Has your child completed treatment? Medication should be taken exactly as prescribed. Once a child has been effectively treated they will be more able to go back to their normal routine. Children are usually no longer infectious one or two days after starting treatment.
Allergic Conjunctivitis: Triggers and Management
All conjunctivitis involves an inflammation of the conjunctiva on the inside of the eyelid. In the case of allergic conjunctivitis, this is caused by a reaction to pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mould and other allergens.
If you live with an allergy, avoiding the triggers is the best way to minimise your child’s symptoms. This can be difficult or impossible when you consider avoiding dust or pollen in summer! In these cases, medication can help reduce the symptoms of allergies.
With allergic conjunctivitis, the best way to manage it is to treat the underlying allergy by minimising your children’s exposure to triggers and through medications.
Prioritising Long-Term Eye Health for Children
Looking after kids’ eye health can feel complex and even overwhelming. Conditions like conjunctivitis are concerning and it can be difficult to know what to do. Taking proactive steps to look after your children’s eyes can make a huge difference to their long-term eye health.
One lesson we learn from conjunctivitis care is eye hygiene. This is important all the time and encouraging your children to keep their hands and eyes clean can help to prevent infections in the future.
Yearly eye exams are important for kids for many reasons and if they are experiencing symptoms or vision loss, these appointments should be moved up. Having professional eye exams ensures that any problems are taken care of, protecting your child’s health and well-being.
Overall health is always a strong indicator of a child’s eye health. Helping create a healthy diet and an active lifestyle is a great way to keep their vision clear and their eyes healthy.