Red or sticky eyes
Conjunctivitis is a common eye condition that affects children, especially under five years of age. It can be caused by either an infection or 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
- 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.
Check if your child has any red symptoms:
- Your child becomes pale, mottled and feels abnormally cold to touch.
- Is going blue around the lips.
- Too breathless to talk, 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 (the ‘Glass Test‘).
- Unable to open eye due to swelling.
- Severe pain and red eye.
Actions to take if your child has any red symptoms
- Your child may require emergency treatment.
- You should call 999 or take them to your NEAREST Emergency Department where they can be assessed.
If there are no red symptoms, check if your child has any amber symptoms:
- Extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia).
- 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).
- Severe headache.
- Persistent vomiting.
- Blisters on the skin next to the eye.
- 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.
- Extreme shivering or complaints of muscle pain.
- Is three to six months of age with a temperature of 39°C / 102.2°F or above (please note fever is common in babies up to two days after they receive vaccinations) – how to take your child’s temperature.
- Continues to have a fever of 38.0°C or above for more than five days.
- Is getting worse or if you are worried.
Options if your child has any amber symptoms
Your child does not need to be taken to the Emergency Department immediately, but you should seek medical advice today.
- ring your GP surgery during their usual opening hours
- contact the out of hours GP if the surgery is closed
If symptoms continue for four hours or more and you have not been able to speak to your GP or the out of hours GP, consider going to your nearest Emergency Department.
If your child develops any of the red symptoms above, go to your nearest Emergency Department.
If no red or amber symptoms are present:
- your child does not seem to have any symptoms of serious illness or injury
- you can get general advice on the NI Direct website or from your local pharmacy
If your child develops any of the red or amber symptoms above, follow the advice in these sections.
How you can help manage your child’s red or sticky eyes at home
- 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 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, your child 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 antihistamines for your child.
Most conjunctivitis in children (bacterial or viral) is mild. It usually clears within 7 to 10 days without antibiotics.
- If it is non-urgent, speak to your local pharmacist or health visitor.
- Alternatively, you can contact your GP practice and a qualified member of the clinical team will check whether your child needs to be seen urgently. Out of hours GP details are available here.
- You should only call 999 or go your nearest Emergency Department in critical or life-threatening situations.
- See our section: How does the Children’s Emergency Department Work?