Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More than you ever wanted to know about pink eye

A couple of you commented on my last post saying you didn’t know pink eye could infect the ear as well. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about pink eye since.

It’s my understanding pink eye is a catch-all term for any illness that…makes the eye pink. It could be a virus or an infection, including an infection that also affects the ear. The first time I caught pink eye from Meg I didn’t have a doctor*, so I picked one out of the phone book, made an appointment, and told him I needed medicine for pink eye. He said, rather condescendingly, in adults it’s just called an eye infection and that it often clears up by itself. I was skeptical. I’d always thought pink eye was a bacterial infection that wouldn’t go away unless treated. But I also had an ear infection and a sinus infection, which he treated me for, so I figured it was the same either way.

Also, after I walked out I noticed he’d written conjunctivitis on my billing sheet and went ohhhhhh (doesn’t conjunctivitis sound way more specific than eye infection? It’s actually not, but it totally sounds like it.)

Of course, after thinking about it this weekend, I came up with a couple other theories – like maybe pink eye IS a specific bacterial infection and the term is overused. Maybe when people say pink eye is viral x% of the time, what it really means is x% of the time it’s not actually pink eye. Or maybe the opposite – perhaps pink eye is always viral (like a cold), so if you have an infection it’s just an infection, not pink eye.

After spending way too much time going over every time the kids or I have had pink eye and thinking about every possible scenario for what it actually is, I realized I could just look on WebMD. Duh. (You can tell I rarely play Dr. Google.) Turns out I was right to begin with. Pink eye/conjunctivitis just means your conjunctiva (membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface) is swollen and red. It can be caused by a virus or bacteria, but also allergies or dry eyes. DRY EYES. No wonder I feel like I often get an internal eye-roll when I tell the pediatrician’s office one of the kids has pink eye.

Anyway, as far as the ear infection goes, in my kids it usually comes first (before the eye). They don’t catch pink eye, then have it spread to the ear. Usually, they get a cold, which causes fluid to become trapped in their ear (and/or sinuses), which then becomes infected, and then the infection travels to the eye. I got tripped up this time because when I took Meg in for the pink eye the doctor didn’t see an ear infection. I thought she’d picked up just the eye infection at daycare or the library play area. When Paul got it a few days later I thought he’d gotten it from her. They both had drippy noses, but when do they not? Of course, AFTER this whole thing, last night I read in a magazine that if a baby has a cold AND eye drainage, they almost always have an ear infection. GOOD TO KNOW.

*I’d moved 2 ½ years earlier and started going to the OB 1 year after that. Up until the pink eye, the OB had handled everything with no need for a GP.


  1. I have also learned more than I ever wanted to know about pink eye in the last few years. For instance, the first time Kalena had it it was caused by her strep throat (she was like 1.) Hands in the mouth + rubbing the eyes = pink eye!

    Then I had pink eye which I wrote off for several days as allergies. I ended up seeing a friend who is an eye doctor (because he was nice enough to see me on a Sunday afternoon) and he said the symptom to watch for is the eye goop. Itchy, red, watery eyes shouldn't need treated. But if they get gunky then they probably do. Good to know!

  2. This is fascinating, seriously. I had no idea that pinkeye could be so many things. I'm sure as Callum gets older I'll start learning this type of thing firsthand, though. Sigh.