Pink eye is right up there with projectile vomiting and diarrhea on the list of things parents dread. Like adults, babies and toddlers can get pink eye. Even newborns can get this very common eye condition.
Pink eye — or conjunctivitis, the medical term for it — happens when the lining of the eye (the conjunctiva) gets irritated, infected, or inflamed. It’s usually mild and goes away on its own.
In some cases, pink eye can be serious, especially in newborns. Your little one might need treatment to help get rid of it.
Here’s what to know about pink eye in babies and what you can do to help clear it up.
Even before your little one’s eye turns neon pink, you might notice some signs that they’re about to get pink eye.
Sometimes babies and toddlers get pink eye during or right after they have an ear or throat infection. A runny nose or sneezing might also be followed with pink eye.
Other early signs that your baby might be getting pink eye include:
- puffy eyelids
- red eyelids
- watery eyes
- rubbing their eyes more than usual
- eyes with crusting or stringy discharge
- fussiness or crying more than usual
- sleeping more than usual
- being less active than usual
- being clingier than usual
- refusing to feed or less of an appetite
- changes in bowel movements, like diarrhea or constipation
You can’t miss full-blown pink eye in your little one because one or both eyes will look pink or red. Like pink eye in adults, it can also cause other symptoms in babies and toddlers.
Newborns can have pink eye symptoms as early as a few days after birth. Or pink eye might pop up at any time in their first 4 weeks.
Pink eye may cause slightly different symptoms in each child. Your baby may also have:
- swollen eyelids
- eye itchiness or irritation
- eye pain
- excessive blinking
- sensitivity to light
- clear, white, or yellow fluid coming from one or both eyes
- stringy discharge coming from one or both eyes
- eye crusting
- eyelids that are stuck together when waking up
- a boil or sore on the eyelid (this happens in more serious cases — see your doctor immediately!)
Always check with your doctor if your baby or toddler has any kind of eye infection or changes to the eye or eyelid. Their eyes are so sensitive, and it’s best to be safe!
How serious pink eye is depends on the cause and your baby’s age. Pink eye in toddlers is normally mild and will go away in 1 or 2 days without treatment.
Pink eye in a newborn should always be looked at by a doctor. A serious pink eye infection may need treatment, including medication. Not getting treatment may damage baby’s eyes or cause other health complications.
Pink eye can easily spread from one eye to the other and to other people (including you) in some cases.
Wash your hands frequently if your baby has pink eye. Wash their hands often with warm water and soap. Also avoid touching your face and eyes.
It might be harder to get your baby or toddler to stop touching or rubbing their eyes or touching their face.
If your baby has pink eye, it might help to put the mittens back on. Distract older babies and toddlers with toys or some screen time (extra TV is allowed on a healing day!).
Some home remedies might help ease discomfort and pain in your little one’s eyes, but they can’t actually treat pink eye.
Cleanse your baby’s or toddlers eyes to help remove crusting and fluid. This can also help open up a blocked tear duct.
To do this, you can use a sterile wet compress around the outside of their eyes. Just follow these steps:
- Boil filtered water and let it cool to about room temperature.
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap.
- Dip sterile cotton pads or cloth into the water.
- Squeeze out excess water.
- Gently wipe your little one’s closed eyes.
- Dispose of the sterile pad after one swipe.
- Get another sterile pad and continue wiping and dabbing at the eyes.
- Don’t use the same cotton pads on both eyes.
If your baby or toddler seems to be getting mild pink eye more than once, check your laundry detergent, shampoo, soap, and cleaning supplies around your home. Some chemicals may cause sensitivity or reactions that trigger pink eye.
Use natural cleansers and baby-friendly soaps and detergents only. Also dress your baby in clothing made from unbleached cotton and other natural fabrics.
Avoid using any kind of eye drops in a baby or toddler.
Natural or homeopathic eye drops might work for adults, but they may not be safe for babies and toddlers. Homeopathic eye drops contain ingredients including chemicals, like:
- belladonna (this is actually from a poisonous plant!)
- hepar sulphuris
- silver sulfate
- sodium nitrate
Treatment for pink eye in babies and toddlers and how long it lasts depends on the cause. If your baby has a bacterial infection, they may need antibiotics.
Antibiotic treatment for pink eye in babies is very rare, but might look like:
- liquid antibiotic that you give baby by mouth
- antibiotic eye drops, ointment, or gel
- IV antibiotics that are given through a needle in the vein (at your doctor’s office or in hospital)
If your baby’s pink eye is caused by a virus, allergies, or irritation, it can’t be treated by antibiotics.
Pink eye from a viral infection usually heals on its own in 1 to 2 weeks. Pink eye from irritation goes away quickly in just a couple of days.
Newborns can get pink eye for different reasons than older babies and toddlers. Newborn babies might get pink eye from:
- a blocked tear duct
- eye drops given in the hospital to protect newborn eyes
If your newborn has pink eye from an infection, it might get serious without treatment. Kinds of bacterial and viral infections that cause pink eye in newborns include:
- gonococcal infection
These infections can be serious and need immediate medical attention.
Older babies and toddlers can get pink eye from rubbing irritation and allergic reactions. A seasonal allergy to pollen or a year-round allergy to animal fur and dust might be the culprit.
Getting rid of allergens might help. Try removing drapes and carpets from your home, or avoid being outdoors when there’s a lot of pollen in the air.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In some cases, your doctor might recommend that you and baby have antibiotic treatment for a current bout of pink eye. This is because in rare cases, the infection might have been passed from parent to baby, which can accidentally happen during birth.
Getting treatment helps you both get rid of the bacteria that caused the infection and prevent pink eye from happening again. A double win!
In other cases, your doctor may recommend allergy skin scratch tests to find out whether your toddler has an allergy. Preventing an allergic reaction might help keep away the pink eye.
Otherwise, practicing good hygiene — especially if your baby is an eye-rubbing machine — is the best preventive measure.
Sometimes, though, pink eye is unavoidable.
Pink eye in newborns is common but can sometimes be more serious. In those serious cases, treatment is needed to help clear up the infection.
In some cases, an infection can be passed from you to baby — and you both may need treatment.
Pink eye in older babies and toddlers is normally mild. It can be caused by:
- chemical irritation
- colds and flus
Always check with your doctor if your baby or toddler has any kind of eye infection. It’s best to be safe.