Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

What is pink eye?

Pink eye is an inflammation of the thin membrane (conjunctiva) that covers the white part of the eye (sclera). This membrane becomes pink or red in colour.

Pink eye is most often caused by a virus. It can also be caused by a bacterial infection or an allergic reaction.

Pink eye is also called conjunctivitis.

Signs and symptoms of pink eye

Your child may have:

  • eye and inner eyelid redness
  • slightly swollen eyelids
  • itchy eyes
  • clear or yellow-green eye discharge

Viral pink eye usually affects both eyes. Your child may also have other cold symptoms. When your child wakes up from sleeping his eyes may be sticky. Discharge from the eye is usually clear.

Bacterial pink eye often affects only one eye at first. You will be able to see yellow or green discharge. This discharge causes crusting on the eyelids.  

Allergic pink eye may occur when your child is allergic to something in the environment. Your child may have a ragweed pollen, tree pollen, grass or animal allergy. It affects both eyes and there is little or no discharge. Your child may have itchy and watery eyes.

Teens who wear contact lenses should remove the lenses. See a health care provider or eye care specialist to find out if the redness is related to wearing contact lenses.

How to treat your child’s pink eye

Viral pink eye may last for 1 to 2 weeks and does not need medical treatment. It should resolve on its own.

Treat bacterial pink eye by giving your child antibiotic eye drops or ointment. Symptoms usually improve within 24 to 48 hours once treatment is started. Bacterial pink eye is usually treated for 5 to 7 days.

Treat allergic pink eye by giving your child oral (by mouth) antihistamines or eye drops made for allergy symptoms. Discuss treatment with your child's doctor.

Taking care of your child with pink eye at home

Prevent contamination

Viral and bacterial pink eye are very contagious. Infection can spread easily in the following ways:

  • contact with the infected eye and then contact with your own eye
  • contact with hands that have touched the eye and then contact with your own eye
  • by sharing pillows, towels, face cloths, makeup, or other facial products

When a close contact has bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, avoid sharing items that touch the face or eye. Wash hands properly with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand rubs to stop the spread of infection. Avoid getting hand rub in the eye.

Cleaning the eyes

Some children feel better when eye discharge or eye stickiness is washed away with a warm compress. Apply a clean, warm, wet towel or face cloth to the affected eye and gently wipe away any discharge or crust. Use a clean part of the compress for each wipe. Throw out the compress right away or put it into the laundry. Wash your hand after you do this.

You can also clean the eye and stop itchiness with saline or other soothing eye drops. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

Pink eye may be irritating, but it is usually not painful. Your child should not need medicine for pain.

Reduce the spread of the infection

Children with viral pink eye are contagious to others in the same way as children with a cold virus. The virus can spread through coughing or sneezing. Viral pink eye may last for up to 2 weeks. You do not need to keep your child out of school or day care for that whole time.

Children with bacterial pink eye may return to school or day care 24 hours after starting eye drops or ointment. If you have any questions about the amount of time your child should stay away from others, ask your health care provider.

Help reduce the spread of infection with good hygiene practices described above. 

Children with allergic pink eye are not contagious. Your child may still go to school or day care.

When to get medical assistance for pink eye

Call your child’s regular doctor if:

  • your child develops pink eye symptoms
  • your child's symptoms last longer than 7 to 10 days

Take your child to the nearest Emergency Department, or call 911, if your child has:

  • any change in vision
  • eye pain
  • sensitivity to light
  • increasing eyelid swelling

Sometimes your child may notice blurred vision that clears with blinking or clearing the discharge. Pink eye is never associated with constant blurred or decreased vision. 

Key points

  • Pink eye is most often caused by viral infections associated with the common cold. It can also be caused by bacterial infections or allergies.
  • Children with bacterial pink eye should take antibiotic drops or ointment. These are not needed for viral pink eye.
  • Viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious. Prevent them from spreading with good hand washing and use of alcohol-based hand rubs.
  • Pink eye should not cause any long term damage to a child’s vision.
  • Seek medical attention if there is a change in vision, persistent redness, eye pain, or eyelid swelling.

Beth Gamulka MDCM, FRCPC
Janine A. Flanagan HBArtsSc, MD, FRCPC