Reddish eyes in infants can be caused by environmental irritants, allergies, and infections. Some home treatments may help, but sometimes medications are needed.
If your sweet baby has redness around their eyes but they haven’t been crying, you’re probably wondering what’s causing it — and how much you should worry.
Let’s look at what could be going on.
Skin around the eyes is probably the most delicate skin of the body. (Yes, this is the first place we’ll notice fine wrinkles later in life for that very reason.) If your child has been rubbing their eyes, the area will easily turn red.
Rubbing — in and of itself — isn’t really cause for concern, unless what’s making your baby rub is more serious. (Do keep in mind that fingers + eyes = recipe for infections.)
But if it’s just a sleepy behavior your newborn’s picked up, you can try hand covers to prevent it, or wait for it to resolve on its own.
Irritants are substances that injure the eyes, skin, or airways in some way. You can divide irritants into indoor and outdoor. Indoor irritants include:
- cigarette smoke
Outdoor irritants include:
- chemical vapors
- chlorine in pool water
Irritants usually cause localized redness that resolves once your baby is removed from the area where the irritant exists, or the irritant is removed from your home.
Allergies happen when our eyes (or another part of our body) react to an allergen. An allergen is usually a harmless substance that triggers an immune response in people who are sensitive to the allergen.
Common allergens include:
- dust mites
- perfume in cosmetics and lotions
- dander from pets
- pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds
- insect venom
If your child has a sensitivity and encounters an allergen, their eyes may produce histamine to fight the allergen. As a result, their eyelids and conjunctiva (the tissue that covers the white part of your eye and the inside of the eyelids) becomes red, swollen, and itchy.
You’ll probably also notice that your child’s eyes are watery with excess tears. A vicious cycle can set in: They rub their eyes to relieve the itching and burning, but the rubbing action irritates their eyes further and the redness increases.
While some of these allergens (like dust mites and pet dander) are around all year long, others are seasonal. If your child is allergic to pollen, you’ll notice their red eyes when pollen counts are high.
Children with eye allergies often have nasal allergies as well. Yes, it’s double the trouble. If you suspect that the redness around your child’s eyes is an allergic reaction, check if they’re sneezing excessively or have a stuffy nose.
Sometimes, if an allergic reaction happens often enough, your child’s mast cells can become oversensitive.
Think of mast cells as your body’s first line of defense against invaders. When mast cells in the eye become oversensitive, they release histamine even if the allergen doesn’t come into direct contact with the eye.
Eye allergies are also called allergic conjunctivitis.
An eye infection happens when viruses or bacteria enter the eye area. It’s important to know the difference, because bacterial conjunctivitis needs antibiotic treatment.
This is also called pink eye, although pink eye can be viral or bacterial. Children with colds commonly develop viral eye infections. Symptoms include:
- red, puffy eyelids
- red in the white part of the eye
- watery eyes
This is more serious than viral conjunctivitis. You’ll notice the same symptoms as those that you notice in a viral eye infection. Symptoms also include:
- a sticky, yellow discharge from the eye
- eyelashes and eyelids that may get stuck together from the discharge
Redness in the eye area of a newborn can be caused by a blocked tear duct, irritation, or infection. Newborn conjunctivitis can be serious, so talk with your pediatrician right away.
A stye (also called a hordeolum) is a painful, red bump on the eyelid. A stye happens when a hair follicle, oil gland, or sweat gland becomes infected. Symptoms include:
- painful, red bump on the eyelid
- redness on the eyelid
- tenderness and swelling around the eye
If the area around your child’s eye is injured or if your child has a sinus infection, they may develop periorbital cellulitis. This is a bacterial infection of the eyelids and skin around them. You’ll notice that your child’s eyelids are very red and swollen.
This is a serious condition and needs immediate treatment.
If your child has redness around their eyes, you can start treatment at home. However, if your child is a newborn or you suspect cellulitis, get immediate medical treatment.
If you can, pin down which irritant is affecting your child. Try a different brand of soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent.
Eye allergies usually come with a wider range of symptoms that also affect the nasal and airway passages. Keep a journal to track what could be causing the allergic reaction.
Here are some areas to examine:
- What’s on your baby’s daily menu?
- Is the allergic reaction related to the season?
- Does it happen at day care? Or every time you visit a specific family member or friend?
- Is the allergy related to animals?
- Do food allergies, like those to milk, wheat, or eggs, run in your family?
Take care of viral conjunctivitis by rinsing the eyes often with warm water. Use a clean cotton ball for each eye. Wash your hands before and after each cleaning.
If you’re nursing, you can try dripping some of your milk into the corner of the eye. Human milk contains many healing properties.
Antibiotics won’t help a viral eye infection. Expect the redness to last between 4 and 7 days.
A sticky, yellow discharge indicates a bacterial infection. You can use warm water and your milk to keep the area clean and to provide some relief, but you’ll need to talk with a doctor about antibiotic eye drops or eye cream to fight the infection.
Newborns with redness in or around the eye need immediate medical attention.
If the redness is from a blocked tear duct, you can gently massage the opening of the duct and below the lower eyelid to help it open up.
Sometimes, the antimicrobial eye drops that your baby is given right after birth can irritate the eyes. This mild redness should clear up within 24 to 36 hours.
Infection can happen when viruses or bacteria in the birth canal pass from the mother to the baby.
Use a warm compress three to four times a day to ease discomfort and reduce redness. If you’re nursing, use a few drops of your milk, too.
Take your baby to a pediatrician if you don’t see any improvement despite the home treatments. Take your journal with you so that the doctor can help track any possible causes.
Remember to tell your pediatrician about any milk, egg, or gluten allergies that run in your family.
If your newborn has a bacterial infection, depending on the severity, your pediatrician will prescribe:
- topical treatment, such as eye drops or ointment (most often)
- oral antibiotics (less commonly)
- intravenous antibiotics (very rarely)
If your baby’s tear duct is blocked, your pediatrician can show you how to massage the duct area to help it open.
Tear ducts usually open by themselves. However, if the duct doesn’t open by the time your child reaches age 1, they may need simple surgery.
If your toddler has bacterial conjunctivitis, your pediatrician will prescribe antibiotics.
Any time your little one has something going on, you may worry. But while redness around the eyes may bother you and your baby, it’s usually a simple thing to deal with.
Just be sure to call the doctor if there’s discharge, or if the issue hasn’t gotten better after a few days.