The conjunctiva – small and inconspicuous, but equipped with important protective functions – is a transparent mucous membrane inside the eye that repels pathogens and other irritants.
However, since infants and toddlers must first develop this natural immune defence, their eyes are particularly sensitive to external influences. This is the reason why conjunctivitis is more common in children.
Typical symptoms of conjunctivitis
- Reddened, swollen, watery, burning and itchy eyes.
- In the morning the eyelids are covered with pus or slimy discharge.
- Depending on the cause, only one eye is affected. But both can be inflamed too.
- If you carefully pull down the lower eyelid, the reddened and swollen conjunctiva can be seen.
- The feeling of a foreign body in the eye: ‘scratchiness’ when blinking.
- The child often rubs her eyes.
- Possible sensitivity to light.
Causes of conjunctivitis
- Eye infections are often caused by virus. Bacteria can also be the cause. In these two cases it is a contagious (infectious) conjunctivitis. The risk of contagion is particularly high for adenoviruses. This is why this is also known as epidemic conjunctivitis or "eye flu".
- Viruses that are responsible for measles, chickenpox or rubella can also trigger conjunctivitis as a secondary effect of the actual disease.
- Allergies such as hay fever or external irritants such as draughts, chlorinated pool water, bright light or foreign bodies (soot, dust or grains of sand) are also possible causes of conjunctivitis. These are non-infectious forms of the disease.
- Babies sometimes develop neonatal conjunctivitis. Because the tear-nose duct in newborns is often not yet properly developed, tear fluid accumulates, which can cause the conjunctiva to fill with pus and become inflamed.
- If the mother is infected by bacteria such as gonococci, chlamydia or herpes viruses, the pathogens may be passed on to the child at birth. These can also be the cause of conjunctivitis in newborns.
In most cases, conjunctivitis is harmless. Nevertheless, the cause should be clarified by a doctor who can decide whether drug treatment is necessary.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis does not always require therapy with medication. Antibiotic eye drops or ointments are only necessary in cases of severe inflammation.
- There is no actual therapy against virally induced conjunctivitis (except for herpes viruses, where the active ingredient acyclovir is used). It usually heals on its own within a few days.
- If there is a risk of infection, the child should not go to kindergarten or school. The risk usually disappears after 2 to 3 days.
- If allergic conjunctivitis is suspected, tests are conducted to find the allergen that triggered it. As a start, doctors often prescribe decongestant eye drops containing cortisone.
Conjunctivitis in children: what brings relief at home
“Stop rubbing your eyes”. Although this is often what parents tell their children with conjunctivitis, it can't be avoided completely. Nevertheless, it's important that they touch their eyes as little as possible in order to avoid extra pain and to speed up the healing process. It also prevents the pathogens from spreading to others through what is known as smear infection.
- It is also important that everyone washes their hands often. This applies to children and parents alike, especially when the parents treat their child’s diseased eyes. If several family members have conjunctivitis, each should use their own towel and washcloth.
- Itching and burning can be alleviated by placing a wet washcloth on the child’s eyes.
- Clean sticky eyelids and eyelashes several times a day: this is done by dipping a clean cloth or swab in lukewarm, boiled water and carefully cleansing the child’s eyes from the outside in.
Conjunctivitis in toddlers: how to administer eye drops
This is not an easy task with toddlers, as they fight back and squeeze their eyes shut. It works best when the child lies down. Pull down the lower eyelid slightly and apply the drops to the inner corner of the eye. The liquid then distributes itself. The bottle should not touch the eye.
Which household remedies help with conjunctivitis
- Popular are herbal drops containing eyebright (Euphrasia). They soothe itching and provide fluid.
- With newborn conjunctivitis, it helps to give regular massages using the little finger, moving in a circle from the lower, inner eyelid to the nose.
- Midwives often recommend pouring a few drops of breast milk into the baby's eyes. This is said to have an anti-inflammatory effect and promote healing. Eye doctors, on the other hand, warn that breast milk could leave a smear film on the eyes and impede the development of the infant’s vision.