Feb-Mar 2002

Eye infections: Pinkeye

Q: My 6-month-old recently had a cold; on top of that, he got pinkeye. Yet no one around him had it. How did he get it?

A: Viruses, bacteria or fungal agents all can cause eye infections. Little hands that wipe runny noses often wipe the eyes too, transferring the infection. Read on to learn more about pinkeye, its symptoms and how to treat it.

Conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, is an inflammation of the thin lining (the conjunctiva) that covers the white of the eyeball and the inner surface of the eyelids.

Any virus or bacteria that infects the nose or throat can find its way into the linings of one or both eyes (or conjunctivae). Infections here, known as conjunctivitis (or pinkeye), produce a reddish discoloration and thick, discolored drainage. Other symptoms may include watering eyes and itching or irritation.

Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria usually produces a thick discharge that gathers on the lids. In the morning, the eyelids may appear crusty or even stuck together. A warm, wet washcloth will remove the crust and unstick the lids. (Be sure to launder the washcloth before using it again to prevent spreading the bacteria to others.) Bacterial conjunctivitis will usually respond to antibiotic drops or ointment within a few days.

Conjunctivitis caused by viruses tends to be accompanied by a more watery drainage than with bacterial infections, but in some cases the redness and swelling can be very intense. In most cases, the infection will run its course in 10 to 14 days. As with all viral infections, antibiotics will have no effect on this form of conjunctivitis.

The bacteria or viruses that cause conjunctivitis can be quite contagious through direct contact: little hands rub infected eyes, then touch toys or other children, whose fingers then touch other eyes and noses, including their own. Toddlers and smaller children with these infections should be kept out of day-care situations until the problem is calmed down or at least until treatment is well under way. Check with the child's physician. Careful hand washing is a must for anyone who has pinkeye or is around someone who has pinkeye.

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