What is conjunctivitis in children?

Conjunctivitis or pink eye is an irritation of the conjunctiva of the eye. The conjunctiva is the membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids. It also covers the actual eye.

What causes conjunctivitis in children?

There are many different causes of this problem. The following are the most common causes:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Chemicals used in medicines for the eye
  • Allergies

Conjunctivitis is usually divided into at least two categories: newborn conjunctivitis and childhood conjunctivitis. Each has different causes and treatments.


The following are the most common causes for the conjunctivitis in newborns:

  • Infection from the gonorrhea virus passed on during childbirth
  • Infection from Chlamydia passed on during childbirth
  • Reaction to chemicals in eye drops
  • Other bacterial causes


This is a very common problem in children. Also, large outbreaks of conjunctivitis are often seen in day cares and schools. These are the most common causes:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Allergies
  • Herpes infection

What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis in children?

The following are the most common symptoms of the condition. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Gritty feeling in one or both eyes
  • Itchy, irritated eyes
  • Clear, thin drainage and increased tearing
  • Sneezing and runny nose
  • Stringy discharge from the eyes
  • Thick, green drainage from the eyes
  • Ear infection
  • Lesion with a crusty appearance
  • Eyes that are matted together in the morning
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Pink or red discoloration of the whites of one or both eyes
  • Discomfort when the child looks at a light
  • Burning in the eyes

The symptoms of conjunctivitis sometimes look like other medical problems. Always see your child’s health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is conjunctivitis in children diagnosed?

Conjunctivitis is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical examination of your child’s eye. Cultures of the eye drainage are usually not required. However, cultures may be done to help confirm the cause of the infection.

How is conjunctivitis in children treated?

Your child’s health care provider will figure out the best treatment for your child based on:

  • How old your child is
  • His or her overall health and medical history
  • How sick he or she is
  • How well you can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

The symptoms of conjunctivitis sometimes look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your child’s health care provider for a diagnosis.

Infection can spread from one eye to the other. It can also spread to other people by touching the affected eye or drainage from the eye. Proper hand washing is very important. Also avoid touching your eyes with your hands, change pillowcases often, and do not reuse tissues or hand towels on your face. Drainage from the eye is contagious for 24 to 48 hours after starting treatment.

The condition will be treated based on its cause. Treatment can include:

  • Allergy drops for the eye
  • Antibiotic drops for the eye
  • Pills

What are the complications of conjunctivitis in children?

The condition usually does not have long-term complications. However, herpes can cause a serious type of infections. It may result in scarring of the eye and loss of vision if it is not treated properly right away.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

If your child’s symptoms get worse or your child has new symptoms, call your child’s healthcare provider.

Key points about conjunctivitis in children

  • Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye
  • Conjunctivitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses, chemicals, or allergies
  • Symptoms of conjunctivitis include gritty feeling in one or both eyes, burning, itchy, irritated eyes, drainage from the eyes, pink or red eyes, sneezing, and ear infections
  • Treatment of the condition will vary based on the cause

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

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