Conjunctivitis - pink eye

The conjunctiva is the thin, clear membrane that lines the eyelids and covers the eyeball. Pink eye is an inflammation or infection of that membrane. It is a common eye problem that occurs in all age groups. Pink eye is caused by bacteria, viruses, injury, allergy, or a foreign body. Repeated episodes of pink eye in infants may be caused by a blocked tear duct. Bacterial pink eye is highly contagious. It is common in young children in day care, preschool and elementary school.

What are the symptoms?

The most common sypmtoms are drainage that is puslike or watery, crusting on the eyelids, swollen eyelids, pink color to the white of the eye, itching or pain, and the desire to avoid light. The health care provider can diagnose pink eye by examining the child's eyes.

How is pink eye treated?

Treatment depends on the cause. A bacterial pink eye is treated with antibiotics that are in drop or ointment form. Make sure the only medication you put in the eye is labeled ophthalmic, meaning "for the eye". Other medications are too irritating for use in the eye. The infection should be cleared up within a few days. After using the eye medicine for 24 hours, your child can return to school. Be sure to give the medicine for the number of days advised by your health care provider. Other treatments may help make your child more comfortable until the problem goes away. Wash the affected eye(s) a few times a day with cold water. Apply a washcloth with cold water over the eyes for 5 minutes to soothe the itching and pain. Do not use it for a longer time because the compress may help bacteria grow. Tissues can be used to wipe the drainage from the eyes. Tissues that have not been treated with any type of lotion are best because the lotion can be extremely irritating to the eyes. Put used tissues in the trash can immediately. When you have contact with eye drainage, remember to wash your hands right away to keep from infecting yourself.

How should the medicine be given?

Before applying the eye medicine, remove crusts from the eyes. Use clean cotton balls with warm water, wiping from the nose side of the eye outward. Use another set of cotton balls to clean the second eye. Use new cotton balls each time you clean the eye. To give the medicine, have your child hold his or her head back and look up. Carefully pull the lower lid down and either squeeze some ointment into the eye or let the drop of medicine fall in. Tell your child it is okay to blink but not to squeeze the eyes shut. Give your child a chance to recover before giving the medication in the other eye. Your child will sometimes need help to hold still while you give the medicine.

How can pink eye be prevented?

Good hand washing is important to keep pink eye from spreading to other family members. Keep your child's hands away from his or her eyes to prevent the spread of infection. If your child touches or rubs the eyes, hand washing is needed. Wash your child's towels and other linens in hot water separately from the rest of the family's. Make sure tissues and washcloths used to wipe the eyes are not touched by other family members.

Source: Mosby's pediatric Patient Teaching Guides, Mosby-Year Book, Inc.

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