Conjunctivitis is an infection of the surface lining of the eye. It is very common in young children and is highly contagious.
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis causes redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid. Conjunctivitis is usually caused by a virus or bacteria. Your child can become infected if they have contact with a discharge from an infected child’s eyes, nose or throat, from contaminated fingers, surfaces or towels, or from swimming in contaminated water.
Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious until the discharge from the eye has gone.
If your child has sore, watery eyes and there is a lot of pus, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. The cause of these symptoms may be something else, such as a tiny object stuck in their eye.
An allergic reaction can also cause conjunctivitis. This form of conjunctivitis is not contagious.
Babies are often born with blocked or narrowed tear ducts, causing a sticky discharge. This is called sticky eye and is not contagious. It usually goes away without treatment. Sometimes sticky eye can lead to an infection, or conjunctivitis, so it is wise to see a doctor if your child shows symptoms of the condition.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
All forms of conjunctivitis cause redness and swelling of the surface of the eye. This usually happens 24 to 72 hours after a child becomes infected, and can last from 2 days to 3 weeks..
If your child has bacterial conjunctivitis, usually both eyes will be affected. They will feel gritty and there will be pus in the eye.
If it is viral conjunctivitis, either one or both eyes can be affected. The eye will be red and itchy and there will be a weepy discharge.
If it is allergic conjunctivitis, your child will also have other allergy symptoms such as an itchy, runny nose or sneezing. Their eyes will be itchy and watery.
Other symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- swollen eyes
- watering eyes
- not liking bright lights
- a green, sticky discharge from the eye that dries while your child is asleep and crusts around the eyelid (sometimes your child’s eyes might be stuck together when they wake up)
How is conjunctivitis treated?
It is important to see a doctor so they can check what type of conjunctivitis your child has. Conjunctivitis usually isn’t serious, but some forms can lead to more serious health problems.
If it is bacterial conjunctivitis, your child may need antibiotic ointment or drops which you can get from the doctor or pharmacist.
Viral conjunctivitis does not need treatment, but you should gently clean your child's eyes to help them feel more comfortable.
Allergic conjunctivitis is treated by controlling other allergy symptoms (for example, by taking antihistamines and avoiding things that trigger the allergic reaction).
Always follow up with your doctor if the infection doesn’t clear up after 3 to 4 days of treatment, your child is in serious pain, has trouble seeing, if the swelling gets worse, or if they develop a fever and don't feel well.
What you can do
You can make your child feel better if you clean their eyes regularly.
You will need:
- a gauze cotton swab, which you can buy from your chemist - do not use cotton wool balls because these can shed pieces of cotton into the eye
- warm water – it is okay to use water from the tap
Wipe the closed eye gently but firmly to remove pus. Do not touch the eye itself or clean inside the eyelid since you may damage the eye.
It does not matter in which direction you clean the eye. However, with young children who are likely to turn their heads away, it is often easier to clean from the nose outwards.
How can conjunctivitis be prevented?
The best way to prevent conjunctivitis is to follow good hygiene practices. Wash your hands with soap, don't share towels or facecloths, and throw away any tissues or cotton balls that have touched the eye.
Viral conjunctivitis often quickly spreads through childcare centres and schools. Infected children and adults should stay at home until the infection has cleared.
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Last reviewed: February 2020