Conjunctivitis in babies

by Mother & Baby |

Sticky, red eyes and odd-coloured gunk – work out if your baby has conjunctivitis

What is it?

Conjunctivitis is a condition where the conjunctiva – the clear membrane covering your baby’s eyeball – becomes red and inflamed. ‘It's quite a common childhood illness and even newborns can get conjunctivitis, although it's more common as they get older,’ says Dr Colin Michie from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

What are the symptoms?

If your baby's eye looks red, puffy or swollen, and he's rubbing it as if it's itchy, it could be a sign of conjunctivitis. ‘Look out for a clear, watery discharge, which can occasionally be a green-yellow colour, that dries to form a sticky crust and glues his eyelids together, especially on waking,’ says health visitor Penny Lazell.

Many babies have sticky eyes, caused by blocked tear ducts. This isn’t conjunctivitis as it’s not itchy, but if the blockages aren’t cleared, the condition could develop. ‘Gently massaging the inner eye, near the side of your baby’s nose, will help clear the tear ducts,’ says Penny.

What causes it?

Your baby can develop conjunctivitis from a viral or bacterial infection or even an allergic irritation. ‘Viral conjunctivitis – the most common version – is caused when your baby catches a cold or ear infection, so the eyes become red and watery,’ says Dr Michie.

Conjunctivitis in newborns can also be caused by a bacterial infection such as chlamydia, picked up during the birth.

Allergic conjunctivitis is triggered by dust, pet hair or pollen getting into your baby's eye, and causing an allergic reaction, or chemicals such as chlorine in swimming pools.

What can you do?

Viral conjunctivitis will go away by itself in a week and it's best not to treat with medicines. ‘If your baby's eyes are crusted up or sticky, bathe them two or three times a day using cooled, boiled water and cotton wool to remove the discharge,’ says Penny. ‘Start at the inner corner of the eye and wipe outwards, using a separate cotton wool ball for each eye.’

Bacterial conjunctivitis can take longer to disappear and you may need treatment with antibiotic eye drops, which your GP or health visitor can show you how to use. Be careful not to spread the conjunctivitis between other members of your family. ‘Always wash your hands after cleaning your baby's eye or touching his face, and wash towels, blankets, pillows and comforters on a hot wash,’ says Dr Michie.

Breast milk may also help treat conjunctivitis. ‘It contains natural anti-bacterial properties that can fight infection, so you can wash your baby’s eyes with it,’ adds Penny.

Contact your GP if…

Your newborn has conjunctivitis that hasn't been picked up by the midwife or health visitor already. ‘Conjunctivitis caused by an infection in the birth canal can cause long-term eye damage so it's important to get it treated quickly,’ says Penny. If your baby has allergic conjunctivitis, your GP may prescribe sterile saline or antihistamine eye drops to soothe itching and redness.

However, it's also worth talking to a health visitor for any kind of conjunctivitis so they can diagnose it properly and advise you on suitable treatment.

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