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Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)
Conjunctivitis is the medical term that translates to inflammation of the conjunctiva, or the tissue lining the inside of the eyelids and eye, commonly known as pink eye. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or even chemicals irritating the membranes of the eye. If a foreign body gets in the eye, it can also cause a discharge that may mimic pink eye. In general, viruses cause a more watery secretion, and bacterial conjunctivitis results in a thicker, yellowish secretion. Pink eye in the first 2–3 weeks of life can be serious.
In addition to the common bacterial and viral causes, conjunctivitis in the first few weeks of life can be the result of an infection acquired during vaginal delivery. Every newborn now receives a dose of antibiotic eye drops to prevent some types of conjunctivitis that are acquired through the birth canal.
Who's At Risk?
Pink eye is very common, especially in infants and children who are constantly touching their eyes. It is very common all over the world and can be spread by sharing objects or toys and then touching one’s eye.
If the pink eye is caused by an allergy or chemical, it may be difficult to pinpoint what exactly irritates the infant’s eye.
Signs & Symptoms
Signs of pink eye include a red, watery eye that appears irritated and may be draining pus or be persistently crusted. The eyelids may be crusted shut in the morning, and the drainage can continue through the day. The baby may have a fever or not be acting “quite right.”
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If the pink eye is caused by a bacteria or virus, it is highly contagious, so good hand washing is necessary. Because pink eye in a newborn could potentially be very serious, you should have your baby seen by the doctor.
Your baby’s doctor may take a sample of the discharge from the eye and send it to be cultured. This will tell the doctor what type of bacteria, if any, is causing the infection. The doctor may prescribe antibiotic drops for the eyes if he/she feels there is a bacterial infection in the eye.
Any newborn who develops signs of conjunctivitis in the first few weeks of life should be seen by a physician, who can help rule out the most concerning causes.
Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 2nd ed, pp. 398-401, 404-411. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 2004.