What is the best way to treat conjunctivitis?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My daughter’s eye is red. Does she have conjunctivitis? If so, what’s the best way to treat it? Is there any way to prevent it?

DEAR READER:

It could be conjunctivitis, but it also could be several other conditions. If her eye has one bright red area, but she doesn’t have discomfort, it could be that a tiny blood vessel has burst. It may sound bad, but it’s a simple and common condition that will slowly go away. But if the eye is extremely painful, it could be conditions that actually threaten her vision, including iritis and glaucoma. She should seek immediate medical care.

And it could well be conjunctivitis. Also known as pink eye, it is redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the tissue covering the “whites” of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids. Conjunctivitis usually causes a thick, green-yellow discharge that makes the eyelashes stick together, particularly at night. It may also be accompanied by pain, discomfort, itchy, watery eyes and sensitivity to light.

Pink eye is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Whichever it is, it is highly contagious.

If you suspect your daughter has conjunctivitis, make an appointment with her pediatrician. If your daughter has conjunctivitis caused by a bacterial infection, the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic ointment or eye drops. If no bacterial infection is present, he or she may also prescribe antibiotics to prevent one from occurring.

If the conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, it probably is a virus called adenovirus, for which antiviral treatment does not yet exist. So treatment will be drops that help relieve the symptoms. Your doctor probably will recommend that you follow up with an eye doctor (ophthalmologist).

You can do several things at home to help your daughter feel better. For example:

  • Use an over-the-counter saline solution to wash discharge and irritants out of the eye.
  • Apply cool or warm compresses several times a day. You can do this by holding a wet washcloth over the closed eye for five to 10 minutes. Make sure you clean the washcloth in hot, soapy water before using it again.
  • Clean the eye carefully with warm water and cotton balls to remove any discharge.
  • Try to keep her from scratching or rubbing the eye.

While caring for your child, make sure that you wash your hands before and after applying any medication or touching your child’s eyes. And wash all towels, washcloths, sheets and pillowcases that your child has used in hot, soapy water.

You can help prevent future episodes of conjunctivitis by teaching your child to wash her hands regularly and to not touch her eyes.

What about school? Because conjunctivitis is so contagious, you should keep your child out of school until at least 24 hours after treatment has started. The school may have its own rules on this, so check with the school nurse before sending your child back to class.