Childhood Eye Infections

Children (and their parents) are no strangers to eye infections, which can readily spread in school classrooms and on playgrounds. These infections, caused by the same bacteria and viruses as colds, flu, sore throats, and sinus infections, typically result in red, inflamed, and itchy eyes. The most common childhood eye infection is conjunctivitis.


Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the clear membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye). It is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection that results in the tiny blood vessels in the conjunctiva becoming inflamed, resulting in the characteristic redness in the whites of one or both eyes. Other symptoms include itchiness, a foreign body sensation, tearing, sensitivity to light, and a thick discharge that crusts over the eyelashes at night, making opening the eyes difficult in the morning.

If your child has any of the above symptoms, he or she should see an eye doctor immediately. Conjunctivitis is highly contagious for two to four weeks following the onset of symptoms. It can be spread by finger contact such as touching the affected eye and then the other eye, or by allowing other people to use your personal items such as pillows, wash cloths, or towels. 

How is Conjunctivitis Treated?

Treatment depends on whether the cause of the infection is viral or bacterial. If it’s viral, the conjunctivitis will usually clear up on its own within a week. Your child’s ophthalmologist may recommend several treatments to relieve any discomfort to the eyes. These include applying warm or cold compresses several times daily, cleaning the eyelids with a wet cloth, and artificial tears. If the conjunctivitis is bacterial, antibiotic eye drops, ointments, or pills may be prescribed. These will usually be taken multiple times each day over the course of a week.

Vernal Conjunctivitis

Vernal conjunctivitis is an infection that results in discomfort, redness, swelling, and irritation in the tissues that line the eyes. It is caused not by viruses or bacteria, however, but by an allergic reaction. Vernal conjunctivitis usually occurs in children with a family history of allergies, especially asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinitis. It is triggered by a reaction to allergens like pollen and pet dander, and is more prevalent in the spring and summer months. 

How is Vernal Conjunctivitis Treated?

Parents can usually treat this condition at home by applying cold compresses several times daily to the child’s eyes, cleaning the eyelids with a wet cloth, and artificial tears. Over-the-counter antihistamines may also be helpful.

HSV (Herpes Simplex) Keratitis 

This common infection of the cornea is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Most adults who contract this condition had their first infection during childhood or early adolescence. HSV keratitis usually heals without damaging the eye, but more serious infections can affect all parts of the eye and cause permanent vision loss if not treated quickly. Symptoms include blisters on or near the eyelid, eye pain, redness of the eye, blurred vision, watery discharge, and sensitivity to light. HSV keratitis often affects only one eye.

How is HSV Keratitis Treated? 

It is important that parents call their child’s ophthalmologist or pediatrician if this infection is suspected. Treatment typically involves eye drops or antiviral medicines taken by mouth. In rare cases, surgery may be needed if scarring of the cornea results in vision problems.