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Why Does My Newborn Have Eye Discharge?

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on July 13, 2020

As the parent of a newborn, nothing beats staring lovingly into your sweet little bundle’s eyes. (Well, watching your baby sleeping soundly comes pretty close!) But what if when you look into your child’s eyes, you see that they have goopy, sticky discharge? Is it something to be concerned about?

What’s Normal?

First of all, take a breath, because sticky eye discharge in newborns is very common. If the white part of your baby’s eye -- the sclera -- is clear and there is no redness, but there is discharge, it’s most likely a blocked tear duct.

About 1 in 5 babies are born with tear ducts that haven’t fully developed. The blockage is usually in one eye but can be in both. It often clears up on its own. A warm compress can help, but if it lasts a long time, it might need surgery.

When It’s Conjunctivitis

Since a newborn hasn’t been around that long -- under 2 months -- it’s not common for them to get a lot of viral infections. But sometimes their clogged tear duct can lead to an infection such as conjunctivitis.

This happens when there is inflammation of the thin layer of tissue (conjunctiva) that covers the sclera. Symptoms are similar to the sticky, watery eyes that come with a blocked tear duct. But with conjunctivitis, there is more swelling, tenderness, and redness of the eye area, and the whites of the eye will be pink or red. Your baby’s eyelid might be red, sticky, and itchy, and the discharge takes on a yellowish color. Also, their eyes might be more watery than usual. The infection often starts in one eye and spreads to the other.

Chemical conjunctivitis can happen when eye drops and ointments, typically used on newborns at birth to help prevent infection, actually cause the irritation. It can show up as mildly red eyes and some puffiness in the eyelids.

It’s rare, but red, angry, itchy eyes with swollen eyelids and discharging pus could mean ophthalmia neonatorum (ON).This is a bacterial infection that can happen during childbirth if the baby passes through a birth canal infected with chlamydia. The symptoms usually show up 5-12 days after birth. Among newborns with ON, half also have the infection other areas of their bodies.

Call the doctor if the baby has a fever and:

  • Your baby cannot open their eyes or you cannot see the eye
  • The area is tender to touch and the skin around the eye is red
  • There is a lot of eye discharge

These may be signs of a bacterial infection of the sclera.

When Treatment Is Needed

Doctors usually recommend a wait-and-see approach, as this issue often clears up on its own. You can also apply a warm compress to the bothered eye.

If the tear duct is still blocked and the eye discharge continues up to the baby’s first birthday, you should see your child’s doctor. They may refer you to a pediatric eye specialist, as it may need surgery.

To treat conjunctivitis caused by the blocked tear duct, try a gentle warm massage with your clean hand between your baby’s eye and nasal area. For chemical conjunctivitis, the symptoms usually only last for 1-3 days after birth, so no treatment is needed. And if it’s ON, doctors usually treat that with oral antibiotics.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Jesse Sturm, MD, pediatric emergency department, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Hartford, CT.

United Kingdom National Health Service: “Institute of Health Visiting - Sticky Eye.”

Kellogg Eye Center Michigan: “Anatomy of the Eye.”

NCBI: “Anatomy, Head and Neck, Eye Conjunctiva.”

CDC: “Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye) in Newborns.”
 

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