Symptoms of conjunctivitis
When a child is suffering from conjunctivitis, the white of the eye becomes red and irritated. It is the transparent mucous membrane covering the eye and the inside of the eyelids that has become inflamed. Normally, the eye appears swollen and it may feel scratchy. There is also normally a sticky discharge called pus from the eye. This discharge causes the eyelids to stick together, particularly when waking in the morning. In most cases both eyes will be inflamed.
A common cause of conjunctivitis in children is an eye infection caused by a virus or bacteria. The inflammation is the body’s way of defending itself. Conjunctivitis can also be the result of an allergic reaction, or a child may have suffered an eye injury or got something in their eye.
How to deal with conjunctivitis
If there is a discharge from your child’s eyes, it is a good idea to wipe it away with some soft tissue. Be sure to throw the tissue away to avoid the risk of infection. The discharge can also be washed away with lukewarm water.
If the eyelids stick together, for example while your child is asleep, you can apply a wet compress or cotton wool to the eye. This causes the discharge to dissolve and loosen, making it easier to wipe away.
It is a good idea to change your child’s pillowcase every day. Children should also have their own towel, both at home and at preschool or day nursery.
It is common for the eyes of newborn babies to produce a yellowish discharge. This is because their tear ducts are narrower than those of older children and adults. If your baby’s eyes produce a lot of discharge, you can wipe it away with some soft tissue.
Can my child go to preschool?
Children who have red and slightly sticky eyes do not need to be kept home from preschool if they are otherwise well. Children with allergic conjunctivitis do not need to be kept home either. However, if your child’s eyelids stick together and you have to clean their eyes throughout the day, your child may have a more severe case of conjunctivitis. Even if your child otherwise feels well, they should be kept home from preschool or day nursery, both to avoid passing on any infection and because their eyes need frequent cleaning during the day.
Your child can return to preschool or day nursery as soon as the worst of the inflammation has passed and there is no longer any discharge from the eyes.
Eye infections spread easily among young children because they play so closely together. The infection is spread, for example, when a child rubs their eyes and then picks up toys or plays with other children. School children do not have the same close contact, but with a severe eye infection your child may need to be kept home if their eyes are irritated.
How can I avoid my child getting conjunctivitis?
If a lot of people around you have colds, it is a good idea to wash your hands regularly to prevent any eye infections being spread. It is also a good idea to change towels frequently at home and at preschool or day nursery.
Conjunctivitis normally clears up on its own within a week or so.
If your child has a very severe case of conjunctivitis and their eyes produce a lot of discharge, or if the inflammation does not pass within a week, you should contact your local health centre. If the health centre is closed or you cannot make an appointment, you should take your child to a local emergency clinic or department. The inflammation may need to be treated with antibiotics. After two days of antibiotic treatment, your child should no longer be infectious and can return to preschool, day nursery or school if they are able to and otherwise feel well.
You should also contact your health centre or an emergency department immediately if your child is sensitive to light or has a severe problem with just one eye and you suspect that it is damaged.
You can always get medical advice by calling 1177.
Read more about colds in children.