Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye) in Infants

By Sarah Malka, MD
Medically reviewed
November 9, 2021

If your infant’s eyes look red, they’re releasing white or clear fluid, and they wake up with crusty eyes in the morning, it’s possible they may have a case of pink eye.

Also known as conjunctivitis, pink eye is caused by an infection or irritation in the conjunctiva, the lining around the inside of the eyelid and white part of the eyeball. 

Pink eye can make babies very uncomfortable, and you may notice they’re itching, rubbing their eyes, or crying more than usual.

In some cases, pink eye may also be accompanied by another sickness, such as a cold or ear infection.

Many cases of pink eye in babies aren’t serious, but some cases can be severe or even result in other medical complications.

So if you suspect your infant has pink eye, visit your health care provider or chat with a K doctor, who can help to diagnose and treat the problem.

Read on to learn more about what pink eye is, symptoms show up in infants, how it’s treated, and more.

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What is Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)?

Pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, occurs when a person’s conjunctiva — the transparent membrane lining the eyelid and eyeball — becomes infected or inflamed.

When the small blood vessels in the eye experience inflammation, they become more visible, which can cause the eye to look red.

While pink eye can happen to anyone, it’s common in babies and kids.

Some types of pink eye are highly transmissible, which means they easily spread from person to person. 

Symptoms of Pink Eye in Infants

Not all cases of pink eye cause the same symptoms.

There are a few different types of pink eye, and some cases are more severe than others.

Pink eye may cause any of the below symptoms in infants:

  • Pink or red eyes
  • Swollen or puffy eyelids
  • Irritation, pain, or itchiness
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Blinking more than normal 
  • Sensitivity to light
  • White, yellow, or clear discharge
  • Stringy discharge
  • Eye crusting, especially in the morning
  • Fussiness or crying
  • Changes in sleep or eating
  • Changes in bowel movements

Sometimes, infants get pink eye before or after another illness, such as a cold or ear infection, so you may also notice a fever or other symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing.

Causes of Pink Eye in Infants

There are a few different causes of pink eye, depending on which type you have.

Bacterial conjunctivitis occurs when bacteria infect a baby’s eye.

It usually causes discharge and can cause an infant’s eyelids or eyelashes to stick together.

You may notice this most in the morning if the discharge dries and looks crusty. 

Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand, is caused by a viral infection in the eye.

It often occurs with other illnesses, such as the common cold, the flu, or another respiratory infection.

Viral pink eye often causes watery rather than thick discharge, and it usually starts in one eye and may spread to the other.

Babies can also experience pink eye due to allergic reactions, which is called allergic conjunctivitis.

Allergic pink eye usually affects both eyes and may come with other allergy symptoms, like sneezing or asthma symptoms.

Irritants can be another cause of pink eye in infants.

For example, a newborn baby could get pink eye from the eye drops doctors give them after they’re born.

Use of new laundry detergents or soaps can also cause eye irritation.

In infants, especially newborns, blocked tear ducts can also cause pink eye.

Healthy eyes make tears to keep eyes moist then drain themselves through tear ducts.

A blocked tear duct can result in irritation, causing pink eye.

While many cases of pink eye don’t result in serious outcomes, some forms of conjunctivitis — especially infections — can pose a medical risk to babies.

If you suspect your baby has pink eye, it’s important to see a medical professional. 

Diagnosing Pink Eye in Infants

Your doctor can help you determine whether your infant has pink eye, as well as the potential cause, with a physical exam or telehealth visit.

The health care provider will likely ask which symptoms the infant is experiencing, and when the symptoms started.

In some cases, a doctor may also want to rule out other eye conditions. 

Treating Pink Eye in Infants

Not all cases of pink eye in infants require medical treatment.

Your doctor will determine whether to treat the pink eye based on the symptoms and how long they’ve lasted. 

If a health care provider suspects bacterial pink eye, they may recommend antibiotic treatment.

The most common forms of bacterial pink eye treatment for infants include antibiotic eye drops, ointment, or a liquid antibiotic medication given by mouth.

Usually, viral pink eye in infants resolves on its own within a week or two.

Irritation-related pink eye may resolve in a few days.

Allergic pink eye can be treated by removing the allergen.

Your doctor may also recommend an antihistamine or eye drops to relieve your child’s allergic pink eye symptoms.

Don’t give your infant medicine without talking to a health care provider first. 

There are a few things you can do at home to soothe your baby’s pink eye.

If your baby has pink eye from irritation, start by removing the source of irritation.

A wet compress may be comforting and can also help remove crusting and discharge.

To make your own compress, wet a cotton pad or gauze with warm (not hot) water and gently wipe the baby’s eye with one swipe.

Don’t use the same compress on both eyes. 

Preventing Pink Eye in Infants

It’s not always possible to prevent pink eye, but you can take precautions that may prevent your baby from getting sick.

Bacterial and viral pink eye are contagious, so do your best to keep your infant away from sick people, including those with pink eye.

If you’re sick, always wash your own hands before touching your child’s eyes, and if your child has pink eye, wash your hands after touching their eyes or giving them medicine.

You may also want to wash towels, blankets, and other linens that the infected child used in a separate load of laundry from the rest of the household, if possible.

Risks of Pink Eye in Infants

Many cases of infant pink eye resolve on their own without treatment.

Severe or bacterial cases may need medical treatment.

Infections can be serious, especially in younger babies, so make sure to see a health care provider if you suspect an infection. 

If your baby’s pink eye is caused by blocked tear ducts that don’t resolve by age one, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to open the ducts. 

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When to See a Doctor

If you think your child may have conjunctivitis, see a doctor right away to learn more about what they might be experiencing.

This is especially important if the pink eye does not improve after a few days of treatment, or if it persists for a week untreated. 

See a doctor right away if your child is inconsolable, experiencing swelling around the eyes, or is sensitive to light.

Other signs of infection, such as a high fever, should also be examined by a health care provider.

Additionally, you’ll want to call your doctor if your child has increased swelling, redness, and tenderness in the eyelids and around the eye, along with a fever.

Those symptoms may mean the infection has started to spread beyond the conjunctiva and will need more treatment.

How K Health Can Help

If you’re not sure what’s causing your child’s eyes to be red or feel irritated, talk to a doctor.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you treat pink eye at home?
Pink eye may not always need medical treatment; some cases resolve on their own. But because conjunctivitis in infants can be serious (and babies can’t tell you how they’re feeling), it’s a good idea to go to the doctor or chat with a K doctor if you’re concerned. Whether or not your baby needs medicine for their pink eye, your health care provider may suggest at-home remedies for pink eye, such as a wet compress or eye drops.
What is the most common way a baby gets pink eye?
Babies can get pink eye from several causes, including infection or irritation. Viral and bacterial infections are among the most common causes of pink eye in infants, but pink eye can also be caused by allergens or a blocked tear duct in some babies.
Does breast milk cure pink eye?
While some people use breast milk to soothe babies’ irritated eyes, breast milk is not an evidence-based cure for pink eye. If you suspect your baby has pink eye, it’s best to talk to a doctor to find the right treatment.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Sarah Malka, MD

Dr. Sarah Malka is a board certified emergency medicine physician with K Health. She completed her residency at Harvard Medical School.