What is sticky eye?
If your baby's eye is very watery and there is some discharge, it's probably a blocked tear duct. This is also known as 'sticky eye'. This condition usually gets better by itself, but it's still wise to check with your doctor. There are things you can do to help it get better and avoid infection.
What causes sticky eye?
Glands inside the upper eyelids produce tears. The tears flow over the surface of the eye. They drain away through small openings in the inside corner of the upper and lower eyelids. The tears then flow through the tear duct to the nose.
About 1 in 20 babies is born with tear ducts that are too narrow or blocked completely. Sometimes the tear duct (tube) is blocked by a plug of mucus or cells that developed before the baby was born. This means their tears can't drain away and their eyes are wet all the time.
Is it sticky eye?
If your baby has sticky eye, their eye or eyes will water a lot. They may have tears running down their cheeks. Sometimes there may be swelling and a sticky yellow or green discharge. Sticky eye is not an infection and should not cause your child pain.
Other symptoms may mean the eye is infected, such as red, swollen, or sore eyes. Your baby may also have a fever or be fussier than usual.
Eye infections include conjunctivitis and dacryocystitis. You should always see your doctor if you think your baby has an eye infection.
You should also see your doctor if:
- your baby seems sensitive to light
- they have large amounts of eye discharge
- they are constantly squeezing their eyes shut
- the side of their nose seems swollen, red, and painful
- the tear duct is still blocked by the time they reach 1 year of age
How is sticky eye treated?
Sticky eye normally clears up by the time your baby is 12 months. If there is any sign of infection, your doctor might give your baby some antibiotic eye drops or ointment.
Some babies will need surgery if the blocked tear duct doesn't improve. This is done with a general anaesthetic, so the doctor can open the tear duct with a probe.
How do I manage my baby’s sticky eye?
There are ways for you to help manage and treat your baby’s sticky eye.
To help the blocked tear duct, your doctor may teach you a special massage.
If your baby has sticky eye, it is important to keep their eyes clean. This will help prevent infection.
Wash the affected eye or eyes as needed, following the directions below:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Pat the eye dry with a clean (or disposable) towel.
- Gently wipe each eye with a disposable cotton swab soaked in water or a weak saline solution, making sure to wipe from the inside corner of the eye to the outside corner.
- Do not touch the eye itself or clean inside the eyelid because you may damage the eye.
- Use a new cotton swab for each eye.
- Wash your hands again.
You can make saline solution by dissolving:
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup (250ml) of boiling water
Make sure that the solution has cooled to room temperature before using.
There is also evidence to support using breastmilk to clean your baby's eye. This will not cause any harm to your baby.
If you see signs of an infection, you should see your doctor.
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Last reviewed: July 2022