Pinkeye: What Exactly Is It?

eye injury prevention

Parents have been asking me some eye-opening questions about whether or not their child could get pinkeye. Let me see what I can tell you about this problem.

What is pinkeye, exactly?

Pinkeye gets its name because it describes the pink or reddish appearance of what is normally the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. We also call this type of redness conjunctivitis.

How did my child get pinkeye?

What causes it, you might ask? Pinkeye can be due to an infection from bacteria or viruses. It can also be due to allergies or chemicals that get into the eye.

No matter what the cause, it will result in redness, tearing, itching and often a discharge of watery. Or, in the case of some infections, a thick white or yellow fluid. This fluid is affectionately referred to as pus. It comes out of the eyes and can sometimes cause the lids to stick together. 

If caused by an infectious germ, pinkeye can be contagious. It will spread by direct contact from one infected person to another. In the case of viruses, coughing and sneezing spread it.

First steps for treatment

If you find your child with these symptoms of eye discomfort, see your child’s health care professional. They can help determine the cause and in turn the treatment.

No matter what the cause, all children benefit from cleaning out the discharge with a clean, cool wet washcloth. If it is infectious due to bacteria, then often prescription antibiotic eye drops or ointment might be recommended. 

Bacterial versus viral pinkeye

If a bacterial cause is found, children can return to school after 1 day of drops or ointment treatment as long as eye drainage also stops. If the pinkeye is due to a virus, this may take longer.

See your child’s health care professional for further evaluation and treatment if a child doesn’t improve in 1-2 days and develops:

  • fever;
  • blisters around the eye; or
  • complains of severe eye pain, blurred vision, or increased tenderness and redness around the eye.

Proactive steps to prevention

Of course, the best way to deal with your child getting pinkeye or conjunctivitis is to not let it happen. To prevent this, have your child wash their hands after interacting with anyone who may have pinkeye. If another child has this problem, they should be washing their hands as well. 

If you think it is due to an allergy, try to have your child stay away from what may be causing that allergy. You can do this by closing windows when the pollen count is high, keeping them away from scented or irritating chemicals like household cleaners, and avoiding their exposure to secondhand smoke.

Hopefully, tips like these will help you know what to do in the blink of an eye the next time you worry about your child having pinkeye. 

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital. He is also chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5. Or, visit the First with Kids video archives at

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