Conjunctivitis is an infection in the lining of the eye over the eyeball and inside the eyelids. It’s very common and also very contagious. Conjunctivitis usually gets better quickly with the right treatment, but your child does need to see a General Practitioner (GP).

Causes of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis happens when the lining of the eye over the eyeball and inside the eyelids gets infected by a germ (bacteria) or a virus.

Infection happens easily, especially when the eye is already irritated – for example, because an object or chemical has got into it. Sometimes your child might develop conjunctivitis as part of a cold.

The eye lining might also get inflamed because of an allergic reaction. This is called allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious.

The lining of the eyeball and eyelid is called the conjunctiva.

Conjunctivitis symptoms

Your child’s eye will be red, teary, sore or itchy. Sometimes there’ll be a greenish, sticky discharge in your child’s eye, which makes the lids stick together after your child has been asleep. The skin around the eyes might look puffy.

In bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, one or both eyes might be affected.

In allergic conjunctivitis, both your child’s eyes will feel itchy and watery. Your child might also have symptoms like an itchy nose and sneezing.

When to see a doctor about conjunctivitis

It’s a good idea to see your GP whenever you think your child has an eye infection.

You should definitely take your child to the GP if:

  • the infection doesn’t clear up after 3-4 days, despite treatment

  • the skin around your child’s eye or her eyelid gets swollen, red and painful

  • your child has problems with vision

  • your child also has a fever, isn’t feeding well or doesn’t have much energy.

If your newborn baby has sticky discharge from his eyes, you should take him to the GP.

Conjunctivitis treatment

Start by keeping your child’s eye clean. Wash the eye gently several times a day with cotton wool soaked in tepid water. To do this, boil some water and let it cool. You don’t need to add salt to the water.

Your GP will let you know about the right treatment for your child’s conjunctivitis. If the GP thinks the infection is caused by a germ (bacterial infection), the GP might suggest doing an eye swab to find out what germ it is.

The GP might prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment for several days. You might need help getting these into or onto your child, and your GP or nurse might have some helpful suggestions. It’s important to keep giving your child the medication for several days after the symptoms have cleared up.

If your child has allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor might recommend topical antihistamines or astringent eye drops. Your child will probably also need to avoid any allergic triggers. Allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious.

Conjunctivitis caused by a germ or virus is very contagious, so always wash your hands after touching your child’s eyes, and give your child a separate towel to use. Wash your child’s hands often, and try to stop her from rubbing her eyes. Keep her home from child care, preschool or school until the infection has cleared up completely.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission