Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a very common condition in children. It causes red, irritated and sticky eyes. A viral or bacterial infection or allergic reaction are the most common causes of conjunctivitis.

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Graphic of a normal eye and an eye with conjunctivitis

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Key points to remember about conjunctivitis

  • conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a common problem in children
  • it causes red, irritated and sticky eyes
  • a viral or bacterial infection or allergic reaction are the most common causes 
  • symptoms can last from 2 days to 3 weeks
  • conjunctivitis spreads easily - good hygiene (especially hand washing) can help prevent the spread
  • see your family doctor if your baby with conjunctivitis is less than 6 weeks old

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is swelling and redness of the clear layer (conjunctiva). This layer covers the white part of the eye and the lining of the eyelids. Conjunctivitis is sometimes called 'sticky eye' or 'pink eye'.

A boy with conjunctivitis

What causes conjunctivitis?

An infection or allergic reaction is the most common cause of conjunctivitis.

An infection (virus or bacteria)

Infective conjunctivitis is caused by a virus or bacteria and can spread easily.

It spreads by touching mucus or discharge from the eyes, nose or throat of someone with the infection. It can also spread by touching surfaces and sharing things an infected child has touched.

An allergic reaction

Allergic conjunctivitis is the body's reaction to something (such as pollen) and will not spread to others. A child will often have other signs of hay fever if the swelling and redness is the result of an allergy. Signs can include an itchy, runny nose and sneezing or a history of other allergic conditions. The eyes are itchy and watery.

What are the signs and symptoms of conjunctivitis?

Symptoms can appear from 2 to 10 days after getting infected. Once symptoms appear, they can develop quickly over 24 to 72 hours.

It can be difficult to tell whether an allergy, bacteria or a virus is causing the conjunctivitis as redness and swelling of the conjunctiva happen in them all. Many viruses can cause conjunctivitis and the symptoms may appear in a mild form together with any flu-like illness.

Children with conjunctivitis often have:

  • redness of the white part of the eye
  • irritation or gritty feeling (like having sand in the eye)
  • discharge (may be clear, milky or pus-like)
  • more tears than usual
  • swelling of the eyelids
  • crusting of the eyelids or eyelashes
  • itchiness

Photo of child's eye with conjunctivitis

If the skin around your child's eye becomes swollen, red or sore, the infection may have spread. This can be serious - sometimes it's a sign of cellulitis. If this happens, take your child to your family doctor or after-hours medical centre as soon as possible.

Check the information on cellulitis.

How long could my child's conjunctivitis last?

Conjunctivitis can last from 2 days to sometimes as long as 3 weeks.

How can I care for my child's conjunctivitis at home

You can help relieve the symptoms of conjunctivitis.

Clear away the discharge

Gently clear away the discharge from the eye with a cotton ball soaked in warm water. Clean in one direction only, moving the cotton ball from the inside to the outside of the eye. Use a separate cotton ball for each eye and throw them away after each use.

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of conjunctivitis

  • wash hands very carefully after contact with infected eyes
  • try to discourage your child from rubbing their eyes
  • wash pillowcases, face cloths and towels frequently and don't share them

When should I seek help for my child’s conjunctivitis?

You should see your family doctor if you are worried about your child's eyes, or if your child has:

  • moderate to severe eye pain
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • any blurred or reduced vision
  • any injury to the eye (such as being hit or scratched), or chemicals in the eye
  • a fever and is generally unwell
  • increased swelling, redness, and tenderness around the eye

If your baby with conjunctivitis is less than 6 weeks old, you should always see your family doctor or midwife. An infection from bacteria in the birth canal can cause conjunctivitis in newborns. This can cause serious damage to your child's eyes and even their general health if it isn't treated urgently.

Your doctor may prescribe eye drops or ointment as it can be hard to tell whether your child has viral or bacterial conjunctivitis.

Should I keep my child with conjunctivitis away from school or daycare?

Children with conjunctivitis should not go to school or daycare until their eyes are better. That's because the discharge from their eyes can pass the infection on to other children.

Are there other causes of watery, red or swollen eyes?

Cellulitis

If the skin around your child's eye becomes swollen, red or sore, it may be infected. This can be serious - sometimes it's a sign of cellulitis. If this happens, take your child to your family doctor or after-hours medical centre as soon as possible.

Check the information on cellulitis.

Eye injury

The following can cause redness, swelling and pain in a child's eyes:

  • being hit or scratched in the eye
  • something getting in the eye (such as a piece of metal or glass)
  • chemicals splashed in the eye

If your child has an eye injury, take them to a doctor, after hours clinic or emergency department as soon as possible.

If your child has had chemicals splashed in their eye, they need immediate first aid. Wash their eye(s) with water for at least 10 minutes and then take your child to your doctor straightaway.

Blocked tear duct

Some babies have watery discharge from one eye over many weeks. If your baby's eye is watery but not red, they may have a blocked tear duct rather than conjunctivitis.

Check the information on blocked tear ducts

Acknowledgements

Stock images from https://www.123rf.com

Photo of a very red eye is from paediatric opthalmologist Justin Mora's private collection.

This page last reviewed 21 February 2022.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it