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What is pinkeye (conjunctivitis)?
Pinkeye, or conjunctivitis, is a very common and treatable inflammation of the conjunctiva – a transparent membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids and the whites of the eyes. Blood vessels become more visible when they're inflamed, giving the eye the characteristic pinkness or redness of the condition.
Inflammation can be caused by an infection, an allergen, or some other irritant. Bacterial and viral pinkeye infections are very contagious.
Pinkeye symptoms in babies
- Redness in the white of the eye and the lower rim of the eyelid
- Goopy discharge
- Crusty eyelids or lashes
Call your baby's doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of pinkeye. It's important to treat it promptly, to avoid spreading germs and to prevent the rare complication of an infection of the eyelid and the soft tissue around the eye.
Mildly red eyes and some eyelid swelling in a newborn may be a short-lived type of conjunctivitis that develops in reaction to the eyedrops given to babies at birth.
Causes of pinkeye in babies
Here are some possible causes of pinkeye in babies:
A virus: If your baby has conjunctivitis as well as cold symptoms, the infection is most likely viral. Viruses are the most common cause of conjunctivitis.
Allergic and/or viral conjunctivitis. © Dr. P. Marazzi / Science Source
Bacteria: If your baby's eyes are producing a thick yellow discharge that causes the eyelids to swell or stick together, bacteria such as staphylococcus, streptococcus, or hemophilus are probably to blame. There's also a serious form of bacterial conjunctivitis called ophthalmia neonatorum that occurs in newborns exposed to chlamydia or gonorrhea during delivery.
Bacterial conjunctivitis. Marazzi / Science Source
An allergen: Allergic reactions are rare in babies under 1 year, but if your baby's eyes seem itchy and swollen as well as watery and bloodshot and she has a runny nose, she may be having an allergic reaction to an irritant such as dust, pollen, or smoke.
Newborn eyedrops: Eyedrops given at birth to prevent bacterial infection can irritate a newborn's eyes. This is sometimes called chemical conjunctivitis.
Blocked tear ducts: At least 20 percent of babies are born with one or both of their tear ducts blocked or partially blocked. The blockage can lead to conjunctivitis-like symptoms, such as white or yellow discharge, or full-blown conjunctivitis. Find out how to care for blocked tear ducts in babies.
Another irritant of some kind: Anything that can irritate the eye and the lining of the eyelid, from smog to chlorine in a swimming pool.
How is pinkeye treated?
If your newborn has pinkeye, call your doctor right away. It can be a serious infection in an infant. The doctor will examine your baby's eyes and ask about his symptoms. Treatment will depend on the type of pinkeye:
Viral conjunctivitis is caused by a virus. It usually clears up on its own in a week or so.
Your doctor will advise you to keep the area clean by gently washing your baby's eyes with warm water and rubbing away the dried discharge. If your baby's eyes haven't improved after two weeks, let your doctor know.
A warm compress may be comforting. Simply soak a clean cloth in warm water and place it on your little one's eyes – while he's feeding, for example.
If bacteria are the culprit, the doctor will prescribe antibiotic ointment or drops for you to use on your baby's eyes for about seven days.
You may find the ointment easier to apply than the drops: Wash your hands, and then gently pull your baby's lower eyelid down a little bit and run a ribbon of ointment along it. (The ointment falls away from the tube as you squeeze, so you just need good aim.) When your baby blinks, the ointment will go into her eye.
If you're using drops, aim for the inside corner of your baby's eye. This may be easiest to do when her eye is shut. When she opens her eye, the medicine will run into it.
Wash your hands before and after treating your baby's eyes. Never share medications or use old drops or ointment. Old medications aren't likely to be sterile and could make the infection worse.
Make sure you use the full, prescribed course of antibiotics, even after symptoms are gone. Otherwise, the infection might return.
Your doctor will probably recommend that you wash your baby's eyes with warm water and gently rub away the dried discharge, because a buildup of infected fluid can make antibiotics less effective.
A warm compress can be comforting. Soak a clean cloth in warm water and place it on your baby's eyes – while she's feeding, for example..
The trick is to identify the allergen and keep your baby away from it. See our allergies article for tips on keeping your home allergen-free.
If your baby's eyes are making him uncomfortable, a cool compress might provide some relief from allergic conjunctivitis.
This reaction to newborn eyedrops given to prevent infection is likely to last only 24 to 36 hours.
All types of conjunctivitis
Many doctors recommend putting a few drops of expressed breast milk (if you're breastfeeding) in the affected eyes several times per day to help clear any discharge, treat an early infection, or even prevent an infection.
How contagious is pinkeye?
Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are both extremely contagious.
To keep the infection from spreading, wash your hands every time you finish caring for your baby's eyes. Keep your baby's towels, clothing, and bedding separate from everyone else's, and wash them regularly.
Can my baby go to daycare with pinkeye?
You'll have to check your daycare center's policy to find out whether your baby can attend while having symptoms. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that it's not always necessary to exclude a baby from daycare because of pinkeye, but facilities have their own rules.
Some allow children to return after 24 hours of treatment, for example. Others don't let them come back until they no longer have any eye discharge.