Clearing up conjunctivitis: how to identify and treat it

Kinderling News & Features

There are a few things about parenting that makes you want to run for the hills. Conjunctivitis is certainly one of them. Highly contagious, highly uncomfortable, it’s not pleasant when it enters your house, and sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. 

To clear it up for us, we ask Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko from Bondi Road Doctors all about this nasty ailment.

How do you know when it’s conjunctivitis?

The most obvious symptom is a redness or pinkness around the white part of the eye. Elysia explains there can be pus, though there doesn’t have to be. 

What causes it and how is it treated?

“There’s a few different causes and it depends on the age of the child as well, “ Elysia says. Treatment is based on the cause. 

“If you have a newborn baby, or a baby within the first three months of life and you do note red eyes or a red eye, they do need medical assessment sooner rather than later because the causes of conjunctivitis in that age group often can come through the birth canal and from mum so we need to do swabs and be a little bit more intensive about things.” 

Listen to Elysia on Kinderling Conversation:

After you’ve moved past that period, there are four main causes of conjunctivitis:

1. Viruses

If your child has an obvious cold and their eyes have gone a mild red, but there’s not much discharge or complaint of pain,  it’s most likely caused by a virus. In this situation, Elysia says it will resolve as the virus eases. 

However, she says “if there’s any change or deterioration or new symptoms, then definitely get medical review.” 

2. Bacteria

Bacterial conjunctivitis usually comes with more discharge, grittiness and sandiness in the eye. Luckily, there’s an over the counter treatment, often an ointment and/or drops. You can also purchase sterile eye wipes.

Use one wipe corner and wipe from the inside of the eye out, and then turn to the next corner and repeat. You have to be very careful you’re not cross contaminating from one eye to another when using these though. 

Elysia does recommend medical advice if you suspect it’s a bacterial cause; “I tend to think personally, if a child does have those symptoms… it’s best to see a doctor prior to giving any medication.” She cautions against using such treatment for more than four or five days without seeing a doctor.

3. Allergy 

“If it’s an allergy, the child is more likely to be having allergy or eczema history, or more likely to have itchy eyes or runny eyes or sneezing a lot,” says Elysia. “These are the textbook descriptions though and nothing in life really comes exactly like that.” She also notes that sometimes little bumps come with allergy. 

4. Chemical burn

If it’s a chemical cause, you would hopefully know what the child has been around and so could identify if it’s something in their eye.  Elysia says the treatment for this is lots and lots of flushing of the eye with water. 

Viruses, bacteria and allergy can all look very similar to each other and can be difficult to differentiate. It’s not always as straightforward and clear cut so Elysia recommends, “if you’re unsure of what to do, yes I think it’s always good to get medical advice.” 

Avoid spreading by:

Hand washing is key in the hygiene scheme of conjunctivitis. You also want to have your children’s nails cut back and try to discourage them from touching and rubbing the eye.

With conjunctivitis Elysia says, "If there is eye pain, or swelling around the eye itself, urgent medical review is recommended."