What should you do when your child has a red eye?

As all us lucky parents know only too well, young children get red eyes very frequently (and because it’s really contagious, us parents get it too). Having said this, there are a few bits of information that make managing this much much easier.

Firstly, we have to work out why the eye is red. The majority of cases are due to a condition we have all heard of but few of us understand – conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the cling-film like structure that lies over the white of the eye). This inflammation can have a number of different causes for it. For example, it can be caused by allergy (hay fever), infection (viral, bacterial etc.) or even physical trauma to the eye (scratching an eye during sleep).

Red eyes can also be caused by a remarkable amount of other conditions too, namely inflammation of any of the other structures in or around the eye. This is rarer but occasionally can be very serious. This is why you need to have it checked out by a GP or optometrist. Equally, the management of different types of conjunctivitis is different and therefore it is difficult for a parent to make the call.

The biggest question in most parents heads will be, ‘Do I use an antibiotic or not?’  Generally, the antibiotics prescribed are very very safe but there are a few problems with them. Only one of these conditions responds in any way to the use of the most frequently prescribed antibiotic – bacterial conjunctivitis. This form is probably the most common cause of red eye that I would see in young children.

You can usually tell the bacterial form by rapid onset, bright red eye(s) and the thick green discharge (a shocking amount of green goo). The problem with parents diagnosing is that it you might be wrong and eyes are important – my advice would be to get it checked out. The good news is that bacterial conjunctivitis is not nearly as bad as it looks. It is not sight threatening and in the vast majority of cases gets better on its own.

If you do have to put in antibiotic eye drops, it is essential to finish the course even if symptoms have subsided. The frequency and dosage of the drops are important also. Instilling drops in a young child’s eyes can be difficult so if you need help, have a look at our article on ‘Getting the drops in.’ Often the child would also be feeling generally unwell too so resting, eating properly and plenty of fluids are vital.

As conjunctivitis is hugely contagious (viral form unbelievably so), it is very important for the patient or parent to be extremely vigilant about hand-washing (especially both before and after drops). Do not share towels or face-cloths. Alcohol hand-gel is often more workable when caring for young children. Believe it or not, it is possible for re-infection to occur so children can pass it back and forth between them. Whilst they are infectious, it is only fair to protect the rest of their peers by trying to keep the child out of close contact with others. The infectious period is very different for different types of red eye.  


On a final note, in almost all forms of red eye there will be some form of discharge so cleaning the area systematically will make the child much more comfortable. They key to doing this is not to make the situation worse. Hand washing again is vital so as not to give yourself a red eye and make sure you don’t pass infection across to a previously healthy other eye. Equally, an eye with an infection is compromised and will be more easily infected by a second infection so let’s not make things worse! Use cool boiled water or saline, cotton wool pads and good lighting. Use each cotton wool pad only once, wet it, clean carefully around the eyelids and eyelashes and then throw it straight in the bin. You will probably need three or four for each eye and it will be as bad as ever again within a couple of hours.

My wife and I have found that applying Vaseline liberally to the eyelids and lashes after getting ready for bed really helps. If a child wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t open their eyes, you can imagine how distressing it is for them. The Vaseline means that the green goo doesn’t adhere to the eyelashes and when the child is asleep the eyelashes don’t get stuck together. It also help to stop the child from getting red inflamed skin around their eyes.

The most important thing is, if in doubt, get it checked out. If ever you are concerned about a child’s eyes, feel free to contact me (Andrew Petticrew) on 02890 323 341. We are always happy to do what we can to help. You are never troubling me unnecessarily.

Andrew Petticrew BSc(Hons) MCOptom




January 19, 2016 at 2:28 am

my child have eye has red eyes.his eyes they produce white substance

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January 26, 2016 at 3:25 pm

My son he have 3 years old he wake up with green goo in his eye and the corner of the eye near the eyelid red my fiance tell me to put salons solution for dry eyes, I want to know if it is necessary to take him to the doctor or keep using what he tell me


January 30, 2016 at 7:31 am

Yes, you need to get his eye looked at – although it is probably better by now!


January 30, 2016 at 7:34 am

With a whitish substance, sometimes allergy is a potential cause. It is worth letting your doctor or optometrist examine the eyes.

virender singh

March 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Sir my son is 6 year old .his eye’s red from few month.i have cheak for deffrent doc.but no respons. Pls good advised and pls told me good medicines name.


March 29, 2016 at 10:30 am

Kid has a red line on his eye lids. It is a bit itchy. It is always common for him in summer.


April 8, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Hi my child is 10 months old his eyes are red when he get ups from the bed, his left eye is having red colour but right eye is fine… I am not sure about….? Any idea what could be the reason


April 9, 2016 at 7:47 am

It is commonly self-limiting-getting better without any treatment but in rare occasions, it does need something to be done. The problem is that it is impossible to tell which without examining the eye – you need to see you local doctor or optician.


April 9, 2016 at 7:48 am

If it is seasonal, it might be worth trying an antihistamine?


April 9, 2016 at 7:49 am

I think for this situation, an eye specialist at the hospital might be the best person to help.


July 9, 2016 at 8:00 am

My daughter is Two years three months old …suddenly from two days her eye turns red..she watches T.V and Ipad for 5 hour a day.will that happen because of it


July 15, 2016 at 10:33 pm

I think it unlikely to be due to screen use, but it would be wise to have the eyes examined anyway.

Mrs Hussain Aliyu.

September 18, 2016 at 10:19 pm

My baby’s eyes is red right from time, and no any pains or signs that Will make some think is disease but im worried about it. What will I used to make it brighter?


October 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Depending on your baby’s age – it is not unusual to have a red eye from time to time, however we would always recommend that you call in to your optometrist to have their eyes checked. We can test childrens eyes from an early age.There is no charge for a child’s eye examination.


November 30, 2016 at 3:16 am

Hi doc, I have a three year old son who has red eyes which are itchy sometimes and a little bit swollen in the mornings when he wakes up. This started when he’d just turned 2. His eyes got itchy and the following morning we took him to the doctor and he was given antibiotics and an eye tube. Please help my son to have clear white eyes again.


December 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

sir my son is 3 years old. his eyes just turned red, its been a year now. He will cry a lot and complain about how painful his ayes are. i tried to take him to optometrist. they told me to wait for him to be 4 years, before the can do eye test. should i wait or what? please am stressed.


March 2, 2017 at 3:41 pm

My son has red eyes since two months, doctor suggested Lacryl ultra and winolap eye drops. But there is no reduction of redness, what could I do?


March 20, 2017 at 5:50 pm

My child is six years old she started having a white discharge from her eyes then it stopped and then only at night her eyes becomes red
What could be the cause help please.


March 22, 2017 at 9:25 am

Without an optometrist examining your child’s eyes, it is difficult to know the cause. Under the NHS – all children are entitled to a free eye examination. To make an appointment, please call 02890 323341.


March 22, 2017 at 9:51 am

Come in and see us. If you are not local – please book an appointment with your local optometrist. All optometrists have standard equipment to examine eyes that a GP does not have. In fact most Accident and Emergency units do not even have this equipment.


March 22, 2017 at 9:53 am

Come in and see us. We see a lot of children at Petticrew Optometrists. They do not even have to be able to read the sight test chart. The earlier any potential problem is looked at the better. Under the NHS scheme – there is no charge for eye examination for children.


March 22, 2017 at 9:55 am

Very often these problems will clear up themselves. However if your son is still having problems, please book an appointment to see an optometrist.


December 23, 2017 at 9:13 pm

My child is 4yrs,he have red eyes for over a year ago… I took her to the hospital to see a doctor.. We are given chlorophenical eye drop and ointment Which is getting the eye even red the more… Am just confused I don’t know what to do anymore

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