“Lie down, Elmo,” my 20-month-old, Ari, instructs his ragged red doll. “Elmo need eye drops,” he tells me.“Good boy, Ari,” I say. “After Elmo it’s your turn, then Josh’s.” I look at my six-month-old, Josh, as he sits on the floor chewing on Mickey Mouse’s plush ear. He blinks at me with his good eye. The other one is purple and swollen shut. Ari’s left eye is crusted together with dried, yellow puss.
In that moment, I feel so sad for my kids. In the last four weeks, we have all become unwilling experts on pink eye, the most common kind of eye problem kids can have. It is also very contagious. When the infection first broke out in my family, I didn’t know a thing about it. I had no idea how quickly it could spread, how hard it is to contain, and how serious it can become.
We learned the hard way – first hand – as a pink eye epidemic attacked my family, one eye at a time. As it turns out, there are two types of pink eye, or conjunctivitis, as it is called in the medical world. We got both kinds: bacterial and viral. “Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids,” says Dr. Barry Sniderman, a Toronto ophthalmologist for more than 40 years. “It causes the white part of the eye and inside the eyelids to become red or pink and is accompanied by a gunky discharge.”
Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotic eye drops and can last for seven to 10 days. Viral pink eye can’t be treated with medication and eventually goes away on its own. “Usually an antibiotic drop is prescribed to prevent a superadded bacterial infection,” says Dr. Sniderman.
“Pink eye is especially contagious among kids,” says Dr. Sniderman. “This is because children have a more direct connection to infections and they are more directly exposed to other kids in school and day care. And since pink eye can leave eyes feeling itchy, the condition is easily spread when kids rub their eyes and then touch other things without first washing their hands,” he says. “The best way to prevent your kids from getting it is by ensuring that they wash their hands with soap and water. This will stop germs from spreading.” It sounds so simple, but in practice, pink eye is almost impossible for me to contain to just one eye or even one person in my family. No matter what I do, one form of pink eye or the other infects every member of my household.
And I take every possible precaution. While people avoid us as though we have the plague, I scour the house with Lysol wipes, swiping every door knob, toothbrush, TV remote and diaper bin that either of my kids may or may not have touched since the day before. Then I wash Big Elmo, Little Elmo, Puppet Elmo, Zipper Elmo, Big Mickey Mouse, Little Mickey, Doggie and Blanket, as well as every duvet, sheet, and pillow case in every bedroom. I pry open little eyes to administer medicine, sanitize my hands, rub backs, sanitize my hands, prepare meals, sanitize my hands, and entertain everyone in the house as though it is business as usual. Then I sanitize my hands.
I wash and sanitize so often that my hands are cracked and bleeding. I quickly realize that we are helpless. My husband, Shawn, gets it. Ari gets it twice. Then Josh gets it and is hospitalized due to a related infection, called orbital cellulitis, that stems from conjunctivitis. In the Emergency Room, I watch four separate teams of nurses jab at Josh’s pudgy arm, trying to insert an IV line into a vein. He needs medicine to ensure the infection doesn’t spread further into his head or damage his vision.
He cries so hysterically that his infected eye drips blood. I spend a week with Josh in hospital while Shawn cares for Ari at home. The night before Josh is released, my right eye starts feeling as though there is gravel under the lid and it quickly turns blood red. By morning, doctors issue me a warning.
“Your eye will get a lot worse before it gets better,” one doctor tells me during 8 a.m. pediatric rounds. “And it’s likely to spread to both eyes before it goes away, too.” I am aghast. “When will this end?” I ask as I wipe my eye. It has begun its contagious drip. “The virus usually lasts for six weeks and then disappears,” someone in a white coat says before the group moves on.
“Six weeks in a family, in one person, or in an eye?” I ask, panicking.
The worst part about having pink eye myself isn’t the searing pain, a burning sensitivity to light, or Impressionist painting vision – a result of yet another complication from conjunctivitis, called keratitis. It’s not the way my eye drips all day long contaminating everything in my path, the way it’s crusted shut in the morning, or the way people avoid even looking at me for fear of catching it. The hardest part is living in fear: fear that my kids will get it again if I touch them, comfort them or hug them.
I miss lying down beside Ari and telling him imaginary stories before bed. I miss holding Josh and spinning him around until he giggles hysterically. Until my eye stops dripping I try not to go near my children. I wash my hands as obsessively as ever and carry sanitizer and Lysol wipes with me everywhere I go, which is mainly to the eye doctor and back.
I watch TV and find myself admiring the whites of everyone’s eyes. How nice it would be to open mine, I think enviously. I realize that I didn’t appreciate the gift of sight until I temporarily lost the ability to see pain-free in one eye. I wonder if Josh and Ari felt the same suffering during their bout of pink eye as I now feel during mine.
Then, just as the doctor predicts, about six weeks after the first sign of pink eye emerged in my house, the virus and bacteria magically disappear. Ari goes back to school, Josh’s eye heals to normal colour and size, and finally, so does mine. At long last, our pink eye epidemic appears to be over. But the lessons we learned live on.
“Don’t cry, Elmo,” says Ari. Though we have long stopped administering eye drop treatments, Ari lies his doll down on the couch and holds an empty eye dropper to Elmo’s bulbous, plastic eyes. “Here’s your eye drops. Elmo’s eyes all better, Mama,” he says to me proudly. “Yes they are, Ari,” I say to my little patient-turned ophthalmologist.
Dr. Barry Sniderman recommends that parents and caregivers keep an eye out for signs of viral and bacterial pink eye – especially during cold and flu season (November-April). Unless you know what to look for, you may not recognize the contagious condition until you’ve already spread it to others.
Here is what to look for and how to take action:
What to do:
See your family doctor or eye doctor to confirm the diagnosis and find out how to treat the infection. If it’s bacterial, it can be treated with an antibiotic eye drop (available by prescription) or over-the-counter drops.
The infection will clear up within about seven to 10 days. It is no longer contagious when the discharge disappears. Once this happens, your child can return to school.
Pink eye can be caused by the same types of bacteria and viruses responsible for colds, ear infections, sinus infections, and sore throats. It can also be caused by allergies or allergens – all the more reason why parents and caregivers should be aware of the symptoms.
If you have children from toddlers to 10 who are in an environment where there is contact with other children, such as a day care or school, it may be helpful to have a plan in place to recognize, treat, and contain the spread of pink eye.