washing her hands

Among the illnesses that spread through elementary classrooms like wildfire, conjunctivitis— commonly known as pinkeye—is one of the most common. That’s because this usually viral infection is highly contagious, and it’s hard to prevent children from rubbing an irritated eye and then spreading the virus to another child via direct contact or shared items.

Dr. Brian Lojka of Clarkson Eyecare compares pinkeye to other common viral infections. “Just like the virus that causes an upper respiratory infection or the common cold, this virus is really common—it just hops into the eyes, and you get viral conjunctivitis,” he says.

There are other, less-common causes for conjunctivitis, which refers to an infection of the conjunctiva, the protective, transparent membrane that lines the eyelid and part of the eyeball. “Bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children than adults,” says Dr. Julia Young, a pediatrician with Docs 4 Kidz. “Other causes include allergies and foreign bodies. There also is conjunctivitis-otitis syndrome in children, which is usually caused by certain bacteria and often requires oral antibiotics.”

Symptoms, which may persist for as long as two weeks, include redness, itching, a feeling that there’s a foreign body in the eye, mild blurriness and mild discharge. “If someone experiences pain, a significant change in vision, a large amount of purulent discharge or pus from the eye, or if symptoms last longer than one to two weeks, they should seek evaluation by an eye doctor,” says Dr. Matthew Council, a SLUCare ophthalmologist. And Young adds that contact lens wearers may experience complications and should make an appointment with their eye-care specialist when they notice symptoms.

While most cases of pinkeye resolve within a couple weeks and leave no lasting ill effects, Council notes that since “not all red eyes are caused by conjunctivitis, people should seek prompt medical attention if any serious warning signs develop, such as a decrease in vision.”

In terms of treatment, Lojka warns against jumping on the antibiotic eyedrops bandwagon before getting assessed by an eye specialist. “Eyes react differently to a bacterial infection as opposed to a virus, and there are markers within the conjunctiva and the cornea that differentiate it,” he says. Instead of antibiotics, which aren’t useful in treating viral infections, most patients need anti-inflammatory eyedrops to help ease discomfort and redness while the infection resolves itself.

Cool compresses on the eye can offer some further relief. “One should take a clean cloth and wet it with cool water. The wet cloth can then be applied to the outside of the closed eye. One should not use the same cloth for both eyes to prevent spread of infection to the other eye,” Council directs. Hot compresses can be helpful in cases of bacterial conjunctivitis.

To avoid spreading the infection, “avoid sending children to school if they have eye drainage that has not been evaluated by a doctor, practice good hand washing, avoid sharing towels or eye cosmetics, change pillowcases frequently, and clean and change contacts regularly,’ Young advises.