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Published on December 31, 2014

Pinkeye? Don’t panic! While not serious, it can be contagious

SIOUX FALLS (Dec. 31, 2014) – Just say the word “pinkeye” at your child’s daycare, playgroup, school or even among your friends at work, and you’re likely to see reactions of fear and dread.

Actually, the condition most often is not serious, and sometimes, it’s not even contagious. Yet to be on the safe side, if your child’s eyes are pink or red, itchy, watery, painful or producing matter, he or she should be seen by your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider.

“Pinkeye” is a generic term for conjunctivitis, which is inflammation of the tissue covering the white part of the eye and inside of the eyelids.

It can be caused by allergies or an irritant, but most of the time, it’s caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The bacteria or virus can be spread from person to person if the person with pinkeye touches her eye, then spreads that eye discharge to an object or another person, who in turn touches his eye. “It’s easily passed between toddlers because they touch everything,” said Shari Eich, MD, Pediatrician with Avera Medical Group McGreevy 7th Avenue.

It’s less likely to be passed among elementary-age children, teens or adults. “The best prevention is frequent hand washing,” Dr. Eich said, as well as washing toys and other surfaces that children touch often.

Viral infections are those that often go through a daycare. Viral infections of the eye often come with other symptoms of an upper-respiratory virus, like coughing, sore throat, sneezing or sniffling. Children who have a cold virus can spread the virus to their eyes if they get mucus on their hands and then wipe their eyes.

Unfortunately, when it’s viral, antibiotic eye drops don’t help, and they won’t prevent contagious spread. Eye drops only help when the infection is bacterial.

“It can be difficult to determine whether it is viral or bacterial, so it is best to see your doctor. If it’s bacterial, antibiotic eye drops will help. If it’s viral, we treat the symptoms with warm compresses, artificial tears and just time,” Dr. Eich said.

Most children with pinkeye that’s caused by a virus get better on their own within five to six days. Yet a viral infection can turn into a bacterial infection. When this happens, the red, itchy, painful eyes get worse instead of better, and the condition won’t clear up on its own.

It’s not necessary to keep children with pinkeye home until the eye totally clears up. If the infection is bacterial, the child can go back to school or daycare 24 hours after he or she started using the antibiotic eye drops.

If the infection is viral, children don’t need to stay home, as long as they have clearance from their doctor, they feel well enough, and don’t have other symptoms such as a severe cough, fever, diarrhea or vomiting.

“Pinkeye does not cause blindness or anything that serious, but it can spread to an infection of the skin around the eye or behind the eye,” Dr. Eich said. If it seems like the eyelids are swelling up, call the doctor right away.

If eye drops are prescribed for your child, use them for the recommended time, and then throw the bottle away – don’t save it for the next time pinkeye strikes your household. “If the dropper is touched to the eye, you could end up reinfecting the eye,” Dr. Eich said.

When you hear the word “pinkeye,” don’t panic. “It’s much like the common cold. Both pinkeye and the common cold can be passed among children, but the condition usually goes away on its own, and it’s not serious. Also, like the common cold, the best prevention is good hand hygiene,” Dr. Eich said.

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