“Pink Eye” is a pink eye – not a medical crisis.
If I were in charge of the world, I wouldn’t send kids home from school for a pink eye. For a goopy eye draining pus down the cheek, yes. But for an eye that’s a little pink, no.
Of all the things kids pass around, “pink eye” is highly overrated. Lots of kids are at school with strep throat, influenza, impetigo, ringworm, pinworms, roundworms, scabies, bronchitis, and herpes, not to mention colds. And an eye that’s somewhat pink is commonly a cold in the eye, not the dreaded “pink eye.”
Lots of things can make an eye turn pink. Here’s a good story. Several years ago my niece’s eye was a little itchy and red. She took a Visine® bottle from the window sill to “get the red out.” Unfortunately it made her eye burn worse than ever – much worse – and turn much redder as well. She ended up going to the ER where they diagnosed an allergic reaction to Visine.
This just goes to show that doctors are not always right. When her brother came home later that day she learned he had put lighter fluid in the Visine bottle!
If you have a cold or a sore throat and your eye turns a little pink, almost for sure it’s a virus. No antibiotics are needed. That’s not to say your doctor won’t give you eye antibiotics. By the time a parent’s bothered to make an appointment, drag their child to the doctor, wait an hour for five minutes with the doctor, they expect something – not to be told it’s just a cold in the eye – and especially not when the school won’t let the child return until the eye is better. Doctors do prescribe eye antibiotics even when they know it’s a virus – except to their own kids. Prophylaxis against a secondary infection is often given as a reason, a questionable practice.
Besides squirting lighter fluid in your eye, other things can turn the eye pink: allergies, smoke, fumes, contact lenses, and trauma. These do not require an antibiotic eye ointment unless there is risk of bacterial infection.
So if your kid’s got a cold and his eye turns a little pink, save a trip to the doctor and the cost of medication by giving it a few days to resolve on its own. If your doctor does prescribe medication, ask for one on the $4 list – you shouldn’t need an $80 eye drop.
One good predictor of whether a pink eye requires antibiotic treatment is if the eyes are stuck shut in the morning. Significant pain is another, as well as a child who looks quite ill. See your doctor if these symptoms occur.
Potential savings on unneeded ER visits for pink eye:
5,000 community hospitals x 1 patient/week x $100 = $2,600,000 annually – certainly a gross underestimate.
© Cynthia J Koelker, MD – All Rights reserved