Eye infections are a common infliction for kids, especially when they’re in day care, nursery, or kindergarten, where little hands rub eyes, then touch toys, books, and friends, spreading the germs around. Two of the most common types of eye infections are conjunctivitis (also known as pinkeye) and styes. Here’s what you need to know about each:
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the thin membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the eye. The cause is usually bacterial or viral. If it’s bacterial, sufferers may get some gooey green or yellow discharge in addition to the redness and itching, and their eyes might be crusted shut in the morning. If it’s viral, the eye is usually watery, swollen, and sensitive to light. A viral infection can sometimes cause other symptoms, such as fever, sore throat and a cough. Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious until the tearing or crusting clears up, which can take 3 to 7 days—children should stay home from school, avoid sharing towels, and wash hands frequently until it’s clear.
Two other causes of conjunctivitis are (thankfully!) not contagious: Allergies can cause itching, redness, and tearing of both eyes and may go hand-in-hand with sneezing and a runny nose; or the inflammation can be a reaction to chemicals, like the chlorine in a swimming pool.
Depending on the cause, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics, allergy pills or eye drops, though most children get better within 5 or 6 days without treatment.
A stye is also red and painful, but it is not contagious. Rather than inflaming the membrane, a stye is what happens when an oil or sweat gland on the eye gets clogged up by dead skin, oil, or bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, causing a pimple-like bump at the edge of the eyelid. A child with a stye might also feel like there’s grit in the eye, and can be sensitive to light. A stye will usually go away on it own, rupturing and draining after 2 to 7 days. To soothe pain and discomfort, apply a warm, wet compress to the eye for 5 to 10 minutes a few times during the day. Make sure your child doesn’t squeeze or rub the stye, and have him wash his hands frequently. If the stye is painful for your child, ask your doctor about antibiotic drops to soothe the affected eye and speed healing.