Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a very common condition in children. It causes red, irritated and sticky eyes. It is usually caused by an infection (virus or bacteria), or allergies.

Key points to remember

  • conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a common problem in children
  • it causes red, irritated and sticky eyes
  • an infection (virus or bacteria) is usually the cause 
  • 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 it?

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'.

Photo of child's eye with conjunctivitis

What causes it?

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

An infection (virus or bacteria)

This is called infective conjunctivitis and is catching (contagious).

An allergic reaction

This is called allergic conjunctivitis and is not catching. There will often be 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.

How long could it last?

The symptoms can develop quickly over 24 to 72 hours. Conjunctivitis can last from 2 days to sometimes as long as 3 weeks.

What are the signs and symptoms?

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.

Symptoms can include:

  • 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

If the tissue around the eye (skin and eyelids) becomes swollen, red and sore, the infection may be in the skin and underlying tissues (cellulitis) which can be much more serious than conjunctivitis. If this happens, take your child to your family doctor or after-hours medical centre as soon as possible.

How can I care for my child 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 wool ball for each eye.

Use a clean cold cloth

Using a clean cold cloth over closed eyes can relieve irritation and swelling.

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?

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 in the eyelids and around the eye

If your baby with conjunctivitis is less than 6 weeks old, you should always see your family doctor or lead maternity carer (LMC)/midwife. Conjunctivitis in newborns can be caused by an infection from bacteria in the birth canal, and this can cause serious damage to the eyes 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. 

What about staying away from school or day care?

Children with conjunctivitis should not go to school or day care until their eyes are better.

This page last reviewed 22 February 2016.
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