This article on conjunctivitis covers the common symptoms and the necessary prompt treatment to prevent the spread of conjunctivitis throughout the family

What is Conjunctivitis?

This common eye condition is caused by the membrane covering the eye and the lining of the eye becoming red and inflamed. The condition is caused by one of three things:

  • a virus or bacteria causing infection- this can be very contagious and can easily spread to your child’s other eye.
  • an allergic reaction – this is common in under three-year-olds and in older children it can be linked to allergies, such as hay fever.
  • damage done by a foreign body in the eye.

Newborn babies may develop conjunctivitis due to exposure to bacteria as they pass through the birth canal.

Young babies may also get sticky eyes because tear ducts do not properly form until they are six months old.

Conjunctivitis is also known as pink eye or red eye.

What are the signs and symptoms of conjunctivitis?

  • Eyes will appear red and bloodshot and feel itchy and sore.
  • Your child will find it painful to blink and may become sensitive to bright lights (photophobia).
  • Your child will be rubbing their eyes in discomfort.
  • When conjunctivitis is caused by infection there will be a discharge of yellow pus first thing in the morning or after a sleep. This can cause crusty eyes.
  • In an allergic condition the discharge will be clear and watery and also cause the eyelids to swell.
  • Conjunctivitis normally starts in one eye and then spreads to the other.

What is the treatment for conjunctivitis?

Always see the doctor when your child’s eyes are red and painful.

The doctor will prescribe antibiotic ointment or eye drops if there is an infection. As with all antibiotic treatments, it is important to complete the course.

Any foreign object in the eye needs to be removed immediately

For allergic conditions, an anti-inflammatory eye drop or antihistamines can be prescribed.

Risks and complications of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis can be serious and can cause problems with sight if it is not treated.

The sexually transmitted diseases of gonorrhoea, herpes and chlamydia can cause conjunctivitis in newborn babies who have been exposed to infection during birth.

What can I do to help my child with conjunctivitis?

Parents can play a vital role in good eye care by keeping the eyes clear of discharge:

  • Do this by gently swabbing the eyes with cool, boiled water (or a saline solution available from the chemist) on a clean cotton swab.
  • Always swab the eyes starting from the side closest to the nose, wiping outwards across the eyelid.
  • Do not use the same swab to wipe the eye more than once and take care not to touch the eyeball. Continue swabbing until the eye is clean.
  • Even if only one eye is infected, clean both as conjunctivitis can easily spread. Wash your hands between cleaning each eye.
  • Try to stop your child rubbing their eyes and keep your child’s hands clean.
  • Wash your own hands carefully before and after treating your child’s eyes – the condition can easily spread to parents.
  • Ensure your child is not sharing face flannels, towels, handkerchiefs or anything else that can spread infection. Change flannels, towels and pillowslips daily to help curb the condition.
  • Any toys that are held close to the face should also be wiped down or washed.
  • Keep your child away from school or other groups of children while the eyes are inflamed.
  • Some young babies are prone to blocked tear ducts which can cause ‘sticky eyes’: massaging gently with your finger from just below the inside corner of the eye down the side of the nose may help unblock this.

Now that you know treating and preventing conjunctivitis, you may want to know about 6 common contagious infections kids get from school. Or, for more expert health advice check out Health and wellbeing section.

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Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

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