Conjunctivitis, or "pink eye" is a condition in which the eye becomes red and irritated, and is usually caused by a viral infection. The conjunctiva is a clear thin membrane that covers the white portion of the eye and also lines the inner eyelids. Inflammation of the conjunctiva is called conjunctivitis. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include crusting of the eyelids and lashes, tearing, and generalized eye irritation. A watery or mucoid discharge usually accompanies conjunctivitis. Most cases of conjunctivitis in the pediatric population are caused by viruses, and bacteria may also be a source of infective conjunctivitis. Non-infectious agents such as allergies or chemical exposure (e.g., sunscreen) can cause conjunctivitis.
Just as there are no available drugs to combat the common cold, there are no suitable eye drops to treat viral conjunctivitis. With viral conjunctivitis, your doctor may recommend that the infection "run its course" and allow the body's natural defense system to fight off the infection. Sometimes anti- bacterial eye drops are prescribed as a means to prevent a secondary bacterial infection. The overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock has lead to increased antibiotic resistance, so don't be alarmed if unnecessary antibiotic eye drops are not prescribed for your child's viral infection. If antibiotic drops are prescribed it is important to follow directions and complete the full course of treatment.
Conjunctivitis is typically quite contagious, especially the viral subset. The infection is easily transferable through hand to eye contact as well as sneezing and coughing. We remind children not to touch their eyes, mouths, or noses in general, and especially during cold and flu season.
In general, most cases of conjunctivitis are mild and resolve without complications. There are some forms of bacterial conjunctivitis that can lead to vision-threatening complications, especially in newborns. It is important to contact your pediatrician or your pediatric ophthalmologist if an infection is severe.
Note also that some newborns develop eye tearing, and this phenomenon is typically due to a temporarily blocked tear duct, called a nasal lacrimal duct obstruction. Eye tearing may also be caused by more serious ocular conditions, such as infantile glaucoma and corneal infections, and it is important to contact your physician if your baby has these symptoms.