Columbia University Medical Center

How to Tell If Your Child Has Pink Eye

pinkeyeIt doesn’t exactly conjure up a pleasant image, but a red eye does not necessarily mean an eye infection. Redness, which is caused by dilation of the small blood vessels on the eye, is a nonspecific reaction to irritation or inflammation, regardless of the cause. “Pink eye” is generally reserved for cases in which the redness is caused by an infection (either bacterial or viral) of the conjunctiva—“conjunctivitis.”

Children with pink eye are typically kept out of school or day care for fear of spreading the infection to other children. It is also important to wash hands frequently and avoid doing anything that might spread the infection within the household, such as sharing towels. Although pink eye is clearly no fun, the good news is that most cases are self-limited and pose no serious threat to the eye or overall health.

But not all cases of red eyes are due to infection.

Here are a few things to look for that might indicate you are dealing with something other than typical pink eye.

1. Pain. Pink eye is not painful. Pain suggests a corneal infection, a foreign body, or inflammation inside the eye.

2. Blurry vision. Pink eye does not seriously blur the vision. Blurred vision suggests a corneal problem or inflammation inside the eye.

3. Recurrence, particularly in the same eye. This suggests the possibility of an ocular herpes (or cold sore virus) infection.

4. Itching. This suggests that allergy, not infection, is the cause of the red eye.

5. Sudden onset. This suggests that some irritant has gotten into the eye.

6. Contact lenses. Contact lens wearers with a red eye should always be evaluated, since the range of problems and their potential severity may be much worse.

7. Lack of tearing or discharge. Pink eye caused by viruses or bacteria is associated with drainage and tearing. Their absence suggests something other than infection.

Clearly, many conditions can look similar to pink eye, and it may take a visit to the ophthalmologist to determine the likely cause. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of other conditions will not only help get to the bottom of things quickly; it will also help avoid the unnecessary treatments and missed activities that will have you—and your child—seeing red.

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ColumbiaDoctors Ophthalmology recently opened its newest location, the Robert Burch Family Eye Center, at 15 W. 65th St., in the Lincoln Center neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Located in the Lighthouse Guild International headquarters, the new facility offers a full range of services and specialty care in general ophthalmologypediatric ophthalmologyglaucomacornea disease, and retinal disease. It features five exam rooms, one devoted exclusively to pediatric patients, as well as a state-of-the-art diagnostic center and two  waiting areas, one for adults, the other for children. The Robert Burch Family Eye Center, which continues ColumbiaDoctors Ophthalmology’s efforts to extend care beyond the boundaries of the Washington Heights campus, complements the East Side facility, the Gloria and Louis Flanzer Vision Care Center, at 880 Third Ave., which opened in 2010.

Under the leadership of George Cioffi, MD, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and director of the Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute, ColumbiaDoctors Ophthalmology has recruited eight key faculty members since 2012. Steven Brooks, MD, is the new chief of pediatric ophthalmology, who is spearheading an expansion of pediatric services at this new location, along with Lauren Yeager, MD. Also seeing patients at the new site are the department’s new chief of retina service, Tongalp Tezel, MD, as well as Drs. Srilaxmi BearellyDana BlumbergLeejee Suh, and Steven Trokel.