- Conjunctivitis is an eye inflammation caused by an infection or an allergy.
- It can cause eye redness, watery, yellow or green eye discharge, eyelid swelling and a feeling like there is sand in the eye.
- Infectious conjunctivitis is very contagious until the discharge has gone.
- You can prevent the spread of conjunctivitis with good hygiene and not letting your child share towels, pillows, eye drops or eye make-up with others.
Take your child to the doctor immediately if they have severe pain, fever or trouble with their vision, or if they wear contact lenses and have conjunctivitis symptoms.
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis, also called ‘pink eye’, is a common eye infection in young children.
If your child has conjunctivitis, they will have redness and swelling (inflammation) of their conjunctiva — the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelids.
What causes conjunctivitis?
There are 2 types of conjunctivitis — infectious and allergic. The symptoms are very similar, so it can be hard to tell which type your child has.
This can be caused by a virus or bacteria. It is very contagious.
Your child can become infected by having contact with:
- discharge from an infected person’s eyes, nose or throat
- contaminated fingers, surfaces or towels
- contaminated water, for example, when swimming
Symptoms usually start 1 to 3 days after your child is infected. They can last a few days if it’s bacterial, or 2 to 3 weeks if it’s viral.
This is caused by an allergic reaction. This form of conjunctivitis is not contagious.
Your child is more likely to also show signs of hay fever if their conjunctivitis is caused by allergies.
Allergic conjunctivitis may be a problem all year round if it’s caused by a reaction to dust, mould, animal hair or foods. If it’s caused by a pollen allergy it may come and go, depending on the season and weather conditions.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- redness in your child’s eye or inside their eyelid
- eyelid swelling
- watering eyes
- not liking bright lights
- itch and a feeling of dirt or sand in the eye
- a yellow or green sticky eye discharge — this dries into a crust while your child is asleep
If your child has bacterial conjunctivitis, it might start in one eye but usually both eyes will be affected. Their eye will typically have yellow discharge and crusting and feel like there’s sand in it.
Viral conjunctivitis can affect one or both eyes. The eye will typically be red, itchy and watery.
If your child has allergic conjunctivitis, they will usually also have other allergy symptoms, such as an itchy or runny nose and sneezing. Their eyes will be itchy and watery and they will probably rub their eyes.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What else could it be?
There are some eye conditions which may look similar to conjunctivitis.
Babies are often born with blocked tear ducts. This can cause a watery or sticky discharge in their eyes. It usually goes away without treatment. Occasionally it can lead to an infection that needs antibiotics. If your baby has a discharge from their eye, seek advice from your doctor, maternal health nurse or paediatrician.
Other conditions with similar symptoms include:
- a foreign body — a small object stuck in the eye
- a corneal abrasion — a scratch on the surface of the eye
- dry eyes
- blepharitis — inflammation of the edges of the eyelids
- serious eye infections
What can I do to help my child?
You can gently clean their eyes. To remove discharge, wipe your child’s eye gently with a cotton ball soaked in warm water. Wipe from the inside of the eye (near the nose) towards the outside. Throw out the cotton ball. If you need to wipe again, use a new cotton ball. Use a new cotton ball if you need to clean the other eye.
Don’t clean inside the eyelid — this may cause harm.
‘Artificial tears’ eye drops and cold compresses may help.
If your child wears contact lenses, take them out until the conjunctivitis is gone.
If your baby has a discharge from their eye, seek advice from your doctor, maternal health nurse or paediatrician.
What treatment will my child need for conjunctivitis?
Treatment depends on what type of conjunctivitis your child has.
If it’s bacterial conjunctivitis, your child may need antibiotic ointment or drops. Put the drops in both eyes. Keep using the drops until 2 days after the discharge has gone.
If it’s viral, it doesn’t need antibiotics. There is no specific treatment for viral conjunctivitis however, it generally improves on its own without treatment.
If it’s allergic, the following things might help:
- avoiding anything that triggers the allergic reaction
- antihistamine eye drops or syrup — ask your doctor or pharmacist if your child can take antihistamines
- lubricating eye drops
- allergen immunotherapy for severe cases
Can my child go to school or childcare?
If your child has infectious conjunctivitis, you’ll need to keep them home until the discharge has gone. They are contagious until the discharge goes away.
When should my child see a doctor?
Take your child to the doctor if their symptoms don’t improve after 2 days. The doctor can check what type of conjunctivitis your child has.
Go back to your doctor if:
- the infection doesn’t clear up within 2 days of treatment
- your child’s eyes are still red after 10 to 14 days
Some symptoms could indicate that your child might have a more serious eye condition.
Go to the doctor immediately if:
- your child is in pain or has severe sensitivity to light
- your child has trouble seeing
- there is swelling, redness or pain that gets worse over their eyelids or around their eye
- your child develops a fever or doesn't feel well
- there is a white spot in your child’s eye
- your child wears contact lenses and has symptoms of conjunctivitis
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How can I prevent conjunctivitis?
You can help prevent infective conjunctivitis by following good hygiene practices.
If your child has infectious conjunctivitis, you can stop them spreading it to others by:
- washing your hands with soap and warm water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser especially after touching their eyes or putting in eye drops
- throwing away tissues or cotton balls that have touched your child’s eyes
- changing their pillowcase and towel every day
- cleaning surfaces that they’ve touched
- not letting them share tissues, towels, facecloths, pillows, eye make-up or eye drops with others.
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Last reviewed: July 2022