Red or Sticky Eyes – Conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis is a common eye condition that affects children, especially under 5 years of age. It can either be caused by an infection or by an allergy. Infectious conjunctivitis is contagious and may spread to other household members. Allergic conjunctivitis is more common in children with allergies such as hay fever.
If your child has conjunctivitis, they may have:
- a red or pink eye (or both eyes)
- redness behind the eyelid
- swelling of the eyelids, making them appear puffy
- excessive tears
- a yellow-green discharge from the eye which dries when your child sleeps, causing crusting around the eyelids
- a dislike of bright lights (photophobia)
- a gritty feeling (like there is sand in the eye)
- itchiness of the eyes and eye rubbing
- children with allergic conjunctivitis almost always rub their eyes excessively. They may also have an itchy or runny nose and sneezing
Your child does not need to be excluded from school or childcare if they have conjunctivitis.
When should I worry and what should I do?
Call 999 or go to A&E now if your child:
- Becomes pale, mottled, and feels abnormally cold to touch
- Is going blue around the lips
- Too breathless to talk or eat or drink
- Has a fit/seizure
- Becomes extremely agitated (crying inconsolably despite distraction), confused or very lethargic (difficult to wake)
- Develops a rash that does not disappear with pressure (see the ‘Glass Test’)
- Unable to open eye due to swelling
- Severe pain and red eye
Call 111 or ask for an urgent GP appointment if your child:
- Has extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Has changes in vision including flashing lights (vision can appear blurred or misted because of discharge smeared over the surface of the eye, but this will usually clear on blinking or wiping the eyes)
- Has a severe headache
- Has persistent vomiting
- Has blisters develop on the skin next to the eye
- Is finding it hard to breathe
- Seems dehydrated (sunken eyes, drowsy or not passed urine for 12 hours)
- Is becoming drowsy (excessively sleepy) or irritable (unable to settle them with cuddles, toys, TV, or snacks – especially if they remain drowsy or irritable despite their fever coming down
- Has extreme shivering or complains of muscle pain
- Is 3 to 6 months of age with a temperature of 39°C / 102.2°F or above (but fever is common in babies up to 2 days after they receive vaccinations)
- Continues to have a fever of 38.0°C or above for more than 5 days
- Is getting worse or if you are worried
If none of the above symptoms are present:
What you should do
If your child has mild conjunctivitis, gentle cleaning of the eyes with cotton balls soaked in warm water may help your child feel better.
- Clean in one direction only, outwards from the inside (nose side) of the eye. This prevents the other eye from becoming infected if only one eye is affected.
- Discard the cotton ball each time to prevent reinfection.
Do not try to clean inside the eyelids as this may cause damage to the inside of the eye. Lubricating eye drops such as ‘artificial tears’ may give some relief.
Although infective conjunctivitis is contagious, the likelihood of it spreading is not high unless there is close contact with others. To reduce the risk of spread, they should wash their hands regularly (especially after rubbing their eyes) and avoid sharing towels, pillows, eye drops, and make-up with others until the discharge from their eyes has cleared. Most children with conjunctivitis do not need treatment with oral antibiotics or antibiotic eye drops, irrespective of whether their infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.
Sore, inflamed, and itchy eyes due to allergic conjunctivitis may be helped by antihistamines. Speak to a pharmacist about antihistamine use for your child.
How long will your child’s symptoms last?
Most conjunctivitis in children (bacterial or viral) is mild. It usually clears within 7 to 10 days without antibiotics.
Where should you seek help?
- If it is non-urgent, speak to your local pharmacist or health visitor.
- Or contact you GP practice and a qualified member of the clinical team will assess if your child needs to be seen urgently. For an urgent out-of-hours GP appointment, call NHS 111.
- You should only call 999 or go your nearest A&E department in critical or life threatening situations.