Eye infections in babies

Baby with eye infection

When your baby wakes with a gungy, red eye and her lashes are all caked together, it’s never a pretty sight – but eye infections are very common in babies, and usually easily treated

What causes eye infections in babies?

Several things can cause your baby to get a sticky eye – it might be a viral or bacterial infection or could be something as simple as an allergic reaction or foreign body – babies are famed for rubbing their eyes too vigorously in their sleep, too, so you can see how infections occur. Conjunctivitis is very common in babies, but other infections also occur regularly simply because babies’ eyes are not yet fully grown.

One very common cause of watery or sore eyes in babies is a blocked tear duct. Babies’ tear ducts are often under-developed at birth and so they can easily become blocked.

How do I know if my baby has a blocked tear duct?

If your baby has redness and swelling in the inside corner of the eye and watery eyes, it could be a blocked duct.

How can you cure a blocked tear duct?

It’s worth checking out with your GP, just to make sure it’s nothing more serious, and she may suggest you gently massage the area on either side of the bridge of your baby’s nose to keep everything flowing freely there.

In the vast majority of babies, as the tear ducts develop fully they grow out of it. Very rarely, a small operation is required to put it right.

It’s worth keeping an eye on blocked tear ducts as they can be just one of the causes of conjunctivitis, another form of eye infection.

Does my baby have conjunctivitis?

If your baby has sore eyes, with redness, seems unhappy and has discharge from her eyes, it’s likely that she has conjunctivitis, where the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the white of the eye) becomes inflamed. It’s not serious but it will need treatment, as if it doesn’t clear up it can become more complicated. Definitely treat eye infections with breast milk – I did it with my son and it worked brilliantly.

You’ll often notice the ‘gunge’ is worst first thing in the morning when she’s (hopefully) had her eyes closed for a good while. You may even have to bathe her eyelashes to enable her to open her eye if the discharge has dried and crusted her eye shut.

What are the symptoms of an eye infection or conjunctivitis?

An eye infection is usually fairly easy to spot but you might want your GP to confirm it and tell you which type of conjunctivitis you’re dealing with (more of that later). Here are some of the symptoms to look out for:

  • Redness in the white of the eye and around the outside
  • Discharge (anything from clearly, watery discharge to sticky, oozy yellow stuff)
  • Your baby rubbing her eyes due to itchiness

Why do babies get conjunctivitis and how is it treated?

There are many causes and ‘types’ of conjunctivitis and the symptoms and treatments are different for each.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

This is very common in young babies, as they often pick up a bacterial infection in their eyes in the birth canal. If the discharge from the eye is yellow or green or another yucky colour, it’s probably a bacterial infection. If your baby has an eye infection in her first four weeks, get her an emergency appointment with the doctor as these infections need quick treatment when they are very young. Doctors will sometimes give antibiotics to clear up a bacterial eye infection.

Viral conjunctivitis

The virus tends to affect older children but babies can get it, too. It occasionally does the rounds in a nursery environment, and is passed on, a bit like a cold virus. If you see a clearish, slightly sticky discharge, it may be viral conjunctivitis. It also presents with the classic, red, inflamed eyes and, often, flu-like symptoms. Your GP may prescribe drops to decrease the inflammation in the eye.

Allergic conjunctivitis

Caused by a reaction to one of several things including smoke or fumes, household products such as shampoo or a cleaning fluid, or even to medicines or foods, this type of conjunctivitis has the same symptoms of itching and irritation (you’ll spot redness and your baby rubbing her eyes) but you’ll probably notice that the infection appears in both eyes at once, rather than starting in one and then spreading to the other. The discharge is usually watery and clear. Your GP may prescribe an antihistamine to relieve the itching and calm the reaction.

Treatments for baby eye infections Baby with sore eyes

The treatment your GP will prescribe will vary according to which type of conjunctivitis is diagnosed. It’s possible they won’t prescribe anything at all and you’ll just be advised to keep it clean and keep an eye on it (ho ho).

You should bathe the eyes with cotton wool dipped into cooled, boiled water. Always wipe from the inside of the eye to the outer side and always use a new piece of cotton wool for each pass to avoid spreading the infection into the other eye or back into the same one.

For the same reason, you should also wash your hands thoroughly after bathing your baby’s eyes.

Are there any home remedies for conjunctivitis?

A trip to the GP just to make sure the infection is what you think is always advisable but there are also things you can try at home to give some relief.

Many mums swear by breastmilk to clear up conjunctivitis. Express a little milk into a cup and apply it with a pipette or cotton wool. If you’re a good aim you can try squirting it straight in but it’s easy to miss and your baby might find it all a bit shocking!

Another home remedy, which some doctors also advise is very dilute baby shampoo (just a drop) in warm water. Again, just apply with cotton wool. No one seems to know why, but anecdotally lots of parents find it works.

And finally, some parents have had success at seeing off conjunctivitis with a good old tea bag. Just dunk it in boiling water, leave to cool and then apply to the eye gently. The tannins are thought to help reduce inflammation.

Is conjunctivitis infectious?

Allergic conjunctivitis isn’t infectious but it is possible to pass on both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis, so use separate towels and flannels for your baby if she has it to avoid passing it on to other members of the family and always wash your hands thoroughly after bathing her eyes or touching her face.

What are the other causes of eye infection in babies?

There are several other infections that share some of the symptoms of conjunctivitis. None of them is serious but do need looking after and may require further treatment if they don’t clear up.

Belpharitis

This often occurs alongside chickenpox or molluscum contagiosum, as well as other skin conditions. It affects the edges of the eyelid and makes the eye lashes sticky and crusty, sometimes causing a few of them to fall out. Your GP will probably suggest just keeping the area clean, but if it doesn’t clear up antibiotics may be given.

Styes

These are boils but they appear at the base of the eyelash. They sound (and look) worse than they are, so don’t worry, but the swelling caused may be a bit uncomfortable for your baby. It isn’t necessary to see your GP but do go if it will set your mind at rest or your baby seems otherwise unwell. A warm compress (not too hot – the eye is pretty delicate) will help make your baby more comfortable and will also encourage the stye to burst. Pretty disgusting when it happens, but just wipe the gunge away and then the stye will start to subside.

Chalazion

This is a small cyst under the eyelid (upper or lower) usually caused by a blocked tear duct (see above). Again, a warm compress should help and it’s worth getting a pharmacist or GP to have a look just to reassure you and offer advice on keeping your baby comfortable.

What to do if your newborn has a goopy eye

While most eye infections are nothing to worry about, if your newborn has one and she is less than a month old, always take her to the doctor’s as, in newborns, a goopy eye can be a sign of something more serious such as a chlamydia infection picked up in the birth canal.
Once you’ve done that, keeping it clean and giving lots of cuddles and sympathy is usually all that’s required.