Seeing the white part of the child’s eye turning red is quite distressing for any parent. This condition can give angry-looking eyes in your child that is sometimes itchy and painful, but is rarely serious. The most common reason for your child’s eye to become pink is conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a thin membrane lining the inner sides of the eyelids and covering the white portion of the eye (called sclera). It can affect either only one eye or both eyes at the same time. Conjunctivitis is a very common eye condition, in which treatment varies depending on the cause.

Probably the most common cause of conjunctivitis is infectious, which could be bacterial or viral. Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection by bacteria such as staphylococci, streptococci, or haemophilus. Staphylococci are natural inhabitants of the human skin, while streptococci and haemophilus are naturally found in the human respiratory tract. Although these bacteria are naturally occurring in some parts of the human body, their inoculation to other parts of the body, like in the conjunctiva, can cause a problem. Aside from red eyes, patient may have sticky eye discharge that makes their eyelids feel gritty. This is usually treated with antibiotic eye drop or ointment (e.g. Chloramphenicol). It is also important to clean the eyes from any crusts and stickiness using a cotton wool soaked in cool boiled water as often as possible, most especially before antibiotic treatment.

Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand is caused by a virus called adenovirus. This is the type often associated with the common cold, and can rapidly spread. Patients have eye redness, watery eye discharge, and painful lymph nodes near the neck. Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for viral conjunctivitis and symptoms may last for several weeks.

Since this is highly contagious, proper hygiene should be strictly adhered. There should be no sharing of towels. One who has conjunctivitis should refrain from rubbing his eyes, and should wash his hands at all times to prevent transmission of the virus.

If the redness of the eyes is accompanied with intense itching, an allergic conjunctivitis is highly suspected. This is particularly common in those with other signs of allergic disease such as asthma and atopic dermatitis. This may occur intermittently, depending on the presence of offending allergen. Treatment includes topical antihistamine eye drops or oral antihistamines and decongestants.

Another cause of conjunctivitis is ophthalmia neonatorum. This mainly develops in infants less than one month old. This happens when the mother has genital infection with gonorrhea or Chlamydia and her baby’s eyes get infected during birth as it passes through the birth canal. The infant’s eyes become red with mucopurulent discharge and his eyelids may sometimes become swollen. This should be treated with antibiotic immediately because the damage can occur rapidly.

Most of the time, it is not always clear which type of conjunctivitis is present in your child because all will cause reddening of the eyes. Hence, it is important to bring your child to the doctor to have him checked which kind of conjunctivitis your child has. The doctor will base his diagnosis on the patient’s eye examination and the history that you give. Sometimes a swab from the eye discharge has to be taken to specifically identify the bacteria causing the infection, so an appropriate antibiotic can be given.