What is pink eye?

One or both of your toddler’s eyes can become red or pink in color when a virus, bacterium, allergen, or irritant inflames the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the transparent covering of the white part of the eye.

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a very common cause of eye discoloration, discharge, and discomfort in both children and adults.

If you suspect pink eye in your toddler, their symptoms should be reviewed by a doctor. If your child has a contagious form of pink eye, they’ll need to spend time at home to reduce the chances of spreading the condition to others.

There are four types of pink eye:

Pink eye often has more symptoms than just a pink- or red-colored eye. Some symptoms are the same for all types of pink eye, while other types will have unique symptoms.

Here are some other symptoms to look for in your child:

  • itching that may cause a child to rub their eye
  • gritty feeling that may make a child think there’s sand or something else in their eye
  • white, yellow, or green discharge that forms crust around the eye during sleep
  • watery eyes
  • swollen eyelids
  • sensitivity to light

Allergic and irritant pink eye may result mainly in watery and itchy, discolored eyes without the other symptoms. If your child has allergic pink eye, you may also notice symptoms unrelated to the eye, like a runny nose and sneezing.

Your child may have symptoms in one eye or both eyes:

  • Allergic and irritant pink eye will usually appear in both eyes.
  • Viral and bacterial pink eye can appear in both eyes or in just a single eye.

You may notice that pink eye has spread to the second eye if your child has rubbed their infected eye and touched the noninfected eye with a contaminated hand.

Viral pink eye

Viral pink eye is a contagious version of conjunctivitis that’s caused by a virus. The same virus that causes the common cold or other viral infections can cause pink eye.

Your child may catch this form of pink eye from another person, or it may be the result of their own body spreading a viral infection through mucous membranes.

Bacterial pink eye

Bacterial pink eye is also a contagious form of pink eye. Like viral pink eye, bacterial pink eye can be caused by bacteria that cause common illnesses, like some ear infections.

Your child can get bacterial pink eye from touching contaminated objects or from contact with those who have the infection.

Allergic pink eye

This type of pink eye is not contagious. It occurs when the body reacts to contact with an outside allergen like pollen, grass, or dander.

Your toddler may have allergic pink eye seasonally, depending on what allergens are more prevalent in the environment.

Irritant pink eye

Your child’s eyes may turn pink in color if exposed to something that irritates the eyes, like chlorine in a swimming pool or smoke. This type of pink eye is not contagious.

Is it contagious?

  • Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious.
  • Allergic and irritant conjunctivitis are not contagious.
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It’s important to get your child’s symptoms diagnosed as soon as you notice changes to the eye.

This not only helps your child get proper treatment, but also reduces the chances of your child spreading the condition to others. With untreated pink eye, your child can be contagious for up to two weeks.

During the exam, your child’s doctor will look at your child’s eyes and ask you about other symptoms.

There is a rare chance that the doctor will want a sample from the eye to send to the laboratory for testing, generally if it hasn’t cleared up after treatment.

Treating bacterial pink eye

Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotics that are applied topically.

You’ll probably see some improvement in your child’s eyes within a few days, but make sure your child uses the entire course of antibiotics to clear out the bacterial infection.

Your doctor may prescribe an eye drop antibiotic, but you may find it difficult to get this into your toddler’s eyes.

You can try to administer them by dropping them in the corner of each of your child’s closed eyes. The drops can then flow naturally into the eye when your child opens them.

It may be more appropriate to use an ointment antibiotic when treating a toddler. You can apply the ointment to the sides of your toddler’s eye, and the ointment will slowly make its way into the eye as it melts.

Treating viral pink eye

Your doctor may recommend home remedies to treat viral pink eye. There are no antibiotics or other medicines that can treat viral infections. They have to run their course through the body.

Home remedies to manage symptoms of viral pink eye include:

  • cleaning the eyes regularly with a wet cloth
  • using warm or cold compresses on the eyes to soothe the symptoms

Treating allergic pink eye

Pink eye caused by allergies will be treated differently than bacterial or viral pink eye.

Your doctor may recommend an antihistamine for your toddler or another medicine, depending on your child’s other symptoms and the severity of the condition. A cool compress may also soothe the symptoms.

Treating irritant pink eye

Your doctor may treat irritant-caused pink eye by flushing the eyes to remove the irritant from the eyes.

Viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious. These versions of pink eye are spread from coming into contact with a person who has pink eye or with something the infected person has touched.

Even coughing and sneezing can send the infection airborne and allow it to spread from person to person.

Allergy- and irritant-caused pink eye cannot be spread from person to person.


Can you treat pink eye with breast milk?

Anonymous patient


There is no good evidence that pink eye can be successfully treated by applying breast milk around the eye. While it is a fairly safe remedy to try, there is a risk of getting bacteria or other irritants in your child’s eye while doing this. Do not put breast milk directly in your child’s eye. It is safest to see your child’s doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations if you think they have conjunctivitis.

Karen Gill, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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The amount of time you should keep your toddler out of daycare or preschool, and away from other children, varies depending on the type of pink eye your child has:

  • Allergic or irritant pink eye is not contagious, so your child doesn’t have to miss daycare or school.
  • Bacterial pink eye treated with antibiotics will not be contagious after 24 hours, so you can send your child back after that time period.
  • Viral pink eye has to work its way through your child’s system. You should not send a toddler back to daycare or preschool, or go out in other public settings, until the symptoms go away, which could take up to two weeks.

Practicing good hygiene is the main way to prevent pink eye, but managing a toddler’s hygiene habits or movements is not very easy.

Your child is curiously exploring the world. Touching objects and interacting with others is part of their development. Additionally, it’s difficult to keep your child from rubbing irritated or infected eyes.

You can try to reduce your child’s chances of developing viral or bacterial pink eye by:

  • limiting your child’s exposure to children with the condition
  • helping your child to wash their hands frequently
  • changing their bed sheets, blankets, and pillowcases regularly
  • using clean towels

Practice these prevention methods yourself, as well, to reduce the chance of contracting pink eye.

It’s more than likely that your child will develop pink eye at some point. You should see your doctor to determine the cause of the pink eye and get a treatment plan to clear up the condition.

If your child has viral or bacterial pink eye, you’ll have to keep them home while you manage the condition, but they should recover after just a few days or up to two weeks.