Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis) in Children & Babies: The Essential Guide

Conjunctivitis is an infection of the lining of the eye over the eyeball and the inside of the eyelids. The conjunctiva is the lining of the eyeball and the eyelid, hence the name conjunctivitis.

Also known as ‘pinkeye,’ conjunctivitis in children under the age of five, toddlers and babies is common. But that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. Although relatively harmless, conjunctivitis is painful. You’ll recognise the infection fairly easily; the child will wake up with sore, irritated, red eyes that may be a little crusty. Sometimes, the child may have trouble opening the infected eye or eyes as the crusty discharge glues the eyelids together. And the child won’t be happy.

What causes conjunctivitis?

Testimony to why it is so common, conjunctivitis can be caused either by a virus or bacteria – and can even be brought on by allergies. Now, the viral and bacterial versions are extremely contagious and are spread by contagious cells present in the discharge from the tot’s infected eye. Given the amount of touching, holding hands and playtime children get up to, it’s no surprise that they easily pick the condition up off each other. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

Sometimes a child might develop conjunctivitis due to the eyeball already being irritated. For example, a chemical may have entered the eye, or it could get scratched. Alternatively, conjunctivitis could develop from a head cold.

Babies can also get conjunctivitis caused by a tear duct that has not completely opened.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis

The symptoms of conjunctivitis are easy to spot. It can last from a few days to up to three weeks. Look out for the following signs of conjunctivitis:

  • A dry, gritty feeling in one or both eyes
  • Red, sore or itchy feelings in one or both eyes
  • Weeping in the affected eye or eyes
  • A crusty discharge that appears in the morning

Conjunctivitis in babies

The causes, symptoms and treatment of conjunctivitis in babies are fairly similar to that of toddlers and children. However, there are some other contributing factors associated with newborns, such as a blocked tear duct which affects approximately 20% of babies, or irritation to newborn eyedrops. This is also known as chemical conjunctivitis.

When children develop conjunctivitis, often you can wait, treat it at home and see if the condition clears on its own accord. However, if a baby develops conjunctivitis (pinkeye) symptoms it is essential that you visit the doctor as it can be a serious condition in newborns.

Treatment for conjunctivitis

Treatment of conjunctivities for babies - Sage Institute of Child CareTreatment for conjunctivitis varies slightly, depending on whether it is viral or bacterial. When treating conjunctivitis caused by a virus, you cannot use antibiotics, and the virus needs to run its course. Instead, soak cotton balls in warm water to clean the eyes, gently wiping away from the centre of the face. Make sure you use fresh cotton balls for each eye and wash your hands thoroughly before and after the procedure to prevent infection.

For bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic eyedrops or ointments are used.

Allergic conjunctivitis is treated similarly to hay fever, with antihistamines, decongestants, or possibly anti-inflammatory drops or even steroids prescribed by your doctor.

When to call the doctor

Ideally, you should see your doctor whenever your child has an eye infection. However, if the infection is mild, you may decide to see the pharmacist for an opinion. Certain situations warrant a visit to the doctor, such as:

  • the infection has failed to clear after three to four days, even when treated with eyedrops
  • your child has problems seeing clearly
  • your child has a fever accompanying conjunctivitis, or is lethargic or has no appetite
  • skin around the eyelid becomes red, painful and swollen

IMPORTANT: if a newborn baby has conjunctivitis – or any discharge around her eyes, take her to the GP immediately.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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