What is pink eye?

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, causes swelling and redness inside the eyelid and the white part of the eye. It can also make eyes feel itchy and painful.

Newborns who get pink eye will usually have these symptoms 1 day to 2 weeks after birth.

Pink eye can cause serious health problems for newborn babies. Call your baby’s doctor right away if your baby has:

  • Unusual fluid (discharge) coming from the eye
  • Puffy red eyelids

What causes pink eye in newborns?

Pink eye in newborns can be caused by an infection, irritation, or a blocked tear duct.

Infection

During birth, bacteria and viruses in the mother’s vagina can pass to the baby and cause a pink eye infection. This can happen with normal, healthy bacteria that live in the mother’s vagina, or with harmful bacteria and viruses that cause infections, like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). If you’re pregnant and have an STD, your baby may be at higher risk for pink eye.

Bacteria that cause sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), like chlamydia and gonorrhea, can cause pink eye in newborns.

If you’re pregnant and have an STD, talk to your doctor about how to prevent pink eye in your baby.

Irritation

Newborns can also get pink eye if their eyes are irritated by chemicals, like eye drops that they’re given when they’re born. Doctors give babies eye drops to prevent infections, but these eye drops can also irritate some babies’ eyes. The good news is, this kind of pink eye usually gets better on its own in 1 to 2 days — and it’s much less serious than an infection.

Blocked tear duct

Newborns may also get pink eye from a blocked tear duct. Healthy eyes make tears to keep the eyes moist, then drain them through the tear duct in the corner of the eye. If the tear duct is blocked, your baby’s eye could get irritated, leading to pink eye.

What’s the treatment for pink eye in newborns?

For all kinds of pink eye, you can use a warm compress (like a warm baby washcloth) to help get rid of crust and fluid (discharge). A cool compress (like a washcloth with cool water) may help with swelling and puffiness. Your baby’s doctor may also recommend using a saline (salt) solution to help rinse out your baby’s eyes.

If your newborn has pink eye caused by bacteria, the doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic. The type of antibiotic depends on the kind of bacterial pink eye your baby has:

  • For chlamydial conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic that you’ll need to give your baby by mouth. You may need to take an antibiotic, too.
  • For gonococcal conjunctivitis, your doctor may give your baby antibiotics through an IV.
  • For other types of pink eye caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment (cream) to put in your baby’s eyes.

If your baby’s pink eye is caused by a virus or by irritation from chemicals, antibiotics won’t help. Viral pink eye will usually heal on its own in 1 to 2 weeks, and pink eye from irritation will usually heal within 1 to 2 days.

If your newborn has pink eye that’s caused by a blocked tear duct, a gentle, warm massage between their eye and nose can help. If the blocked tear duct isn’t clear by the time your baby is a year old, they may need surgery.

Remember, always wash your hands before and after touching your baby’s eyes.

Last updated: June 26, 2019