How to Identify and Treat Pink Eye in Children

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane that covers the whites of the eyes and the inner eyelids. Pink eye is very contagious.

It’s estimated that about 6 million people in the United States experience pink eye every year. Children in group settings such as school or day care are especially at risk.

This article describes how to recognize pink eye in children and treatment options.

Preschooler boy with red bursted blood vessels in eye. Conjunctivitis, trauma of eye, inflammation, infection, allergy or intraocular pressure are reason for contacting an ophthalmologist. - stock photo

SbytovaMN / Getty Images

Identifying Pink Eye in Kids

The first sign of pink eye in children is usually eye redness. The white portion of their eye may appear pink or red. Other symptoms include:

  • Eyelid swelling
  • Eye discharge
  • Increased tear production
  • Crusting over the eyelids or eyelashes 
  • Eye itching
  • Irritation or burning sensation 

Pink Eye Causes

There are several possible causes of pink eye in children, and treatment may vary based on the underlying cause. 

Bacterial Pink Eye

A bacterial infection of the conjunctiva causes bacterial pink eye. Bacteria that may cause bacterial pink eye include Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumonia, among others.

Bacterial pink eye spreads quickly and affects more children than adults. In the United States, it is most common from December through April. Bacterial pink eye sometimes occurs with an ear infection in young children.

Viral Pink Eye

A viral infection of the conjunctiva causes viral pink eye. The group of adenoviruses is often the cause of viral pink eye. 

Viral pink eye is very contagious. In addition to the usual pink eye symptoms, children may also exhibit signs of the common cold or the flu. It’s common to experience watery discharge from the eye as well. Viral pink eye often begins in one eye but quickly spreads to the other. 

Allergic Pink Eye 

Unlike the bacterial and viral causes, allergic pink eye is not caused by an infection. Allergic pink eye occurs when the body experiences an allergic reaction. Common triggers include trees, grass, plants, mold, pet dander, dust, and medications. 

Allergic pink eye is caused by an immune response and is not contagious. Children with eczema and other allergic conditions are at higher risk of experiencing allergic pink eye. 

Allergic pink eye usually occurs in both eyes. Common symptoms include swelling, tearing, and intense itching. Children may also develop an itchy nose, sneezing, and a sore throat. Allergic pink eye may occur during pollen season or may be present year-round, depending on the allergen involved. 

Irritant Pink Eye

Irritant pink eye occurs when a foreign body or other irritant comes in contact with the conjunctiva. Common irritants may include dust, smoke, fumes, or chemicals. It can also occur when someone wears their contact lenses longer than recommended. 

Irritant pink eye is not contagious and is not as common in children as adults. Symptoms may include watery eyes and thick mucus discharge. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Many cases of pink eye resolve on their own. However, it’s important to see a healthcare provider if your child develops any of these symptoms:

  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Any signs when the immune system is compromised 

Newborns with pink eye symptoms should see a healthcare provider right away.

Pink Eye Treatment

Pink eye usually is a mild condition that often resolves on its own. Try offering your child a cold compress over their eye at home. This can feel soothing and help to reduce inflammation and itching. 

Bacterial pink eye can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to resolve without treatment.  Your primary care provider or pediatrician may recommend an antibiotic ointment or drops to shorten the duration of symptoms. 

Most cases of viral pink eye are mild and do not require treatment. Antibiotics are not an effective remedy for viral infections. Symptoms of viral pink eye usually last about 7 to 14 days. 

Allergic pink eye can be treated by avoiding the allergen that causes the immune response. If your child typically reacts to pollen, try to decrease the time spent outdoors. Your healthcare provider may recommend allergy medication or eye drops depending on the severity of the symptoms.

Eye Itching

The itchy eye associated with pink eye can be very irritating, especially for young children. Try cleaning your child’s eyelids with a warm cloth. This can help to remove any discharge or crusting.

Pink Eye Prevention

Pink eye in children is often very contagious and cannot always be prevented. Viral and bacterial forms of pink eye are spread by close contact with an individual with the infection. Children can catch pink eye from close personal contact or by touching a toy or item that has been contaminated. 

Lower your child’s risk of catching pink eye by encouraging frequent handwashing. Teach your child to use soap and water and to spend at least 20 seconds washing. 

If your child has pink eye, protect yourself by washing your hands anytime you are in close contact. Avoid touching your face or rubbing your eyes as much as possible. Help your child to wash away any eye discharge with a warm washcloth, then wash your hands. 

When a child has pink eye, it’s important to wash all their linens like towels and pillowcases in hot water. Children with pink eye should not wear contact lenses or play in swimming pools. 

Summary

Pink eye is a common condition in children. It is caused by an infection or inflammation of the membrane that covers the whites of the eyes, known as the conjunctiva.

Pink eye may be caused by a bacterial infection, a viral infection, an allergic reaction, or an environmental irritant. Pink eye is very contagious and is spread through close physical contact. Home remedies include using cold compresses to soothe the eye and wiping away any discharge with a warm washcloth. Bacterial pink eye may require antibiotic ointment or drops.

A Word From Verywell

Every parent dreads the phone call from day care letting them know that their child has been exposed to pink eye. While the condition is often uncomfortable, most cases of pink eye in children are mild. Call your healthcare provider if your child’s symptoms worsen or they develop new symptoms such as pain or blurred vision. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is a child contagious with pink eye?

    A child with pink eye is usually contagious as long as they have symptoms. Once the eye redness and discharge resolve, they can safely return to school or day care. 

  • Can my child go to school with pink eye?

    Most schools and day care centers have policies that prevent a child with pink eye from attending. Most children can return to school or day care once they have been on antibiotic eye drops or ointment for 24 hours and are free of fever.

  • How do you get rid of pink eye fast at home for kids?

    Most cases of pink eye usually resolve within a week. Viral pink eye cannot be shortened and needs to run its course. Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotic ointment or drops to speed healing. 

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  9. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Pink eye home remedies.