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The commonest cause of a red in children is conjuctivitus. However other rarer but important causes do exsist and a red eye should always be check by a health professional.


Conjunctivitus is an inflammation of both the eyelid lining and the outer protective layer of the eye (the conjunctiva). It can be caused by an infection (virus or bacteria) or by allergies. It is often quite hard to tell which cause is present as each will cause reddening of the conjunctiva.

What is the cause?

If caused by bacteria, both eye are almost always infected, although it may start in one eye. This is likely to be a gritty feeling and pus. Conjunctivitis from a virus may involve one or both eyes, causing red itchy eyes and watering of the eyes. If it comes from an allergy there are often other signs of hay fever including itchy nose and sneezing, the eyes feel itchy and run a lot.

How is conjuctivitis spread?

Viral conjunctivitis spreads easily either by touching the water that comes out of the eye or by coughing or sneezing if the child has a 'flu' at the same time. Conjunctivitis from bacteria can be spread by hands touching the pus from the eye and moving it to other eyes, and also by flies (trahoma). Conjunctivitis from allergies is not infectious.

How long does it take to develop and for how long is conjuctivitis contagious?

Conjunctivitis due to an allergy is not contagious, so children and adults with it do not need to be kept away from others. Swimming pools may irritate the condition but other swimmers will not 'catch' an allergy. If conjunctivitis is due to a bacterial infection, it is contagious until the eyes are no longer red and there is no discharge (this may be after several days without treatment, or about 24 hours after starting effective treatment with antibiotic eye drops or ointment). Stay out of the pool until all the discharge has ceased. If the conjuctivitis is due to a viral infection, it may take several days before the eyes are clear, and the person in infectious until the eyes are back to normal. Stay out of the pool until all discharge has ceased.

The incubation period varies with the cause but if it is a virus or bacteria it is usually 1-3 days.


It is important to see your doctor to check which kind of conjuctivitis your child has.

Bacterial conjunctivitis may need antibiotic ointment or drops from a doctor. Viral conjunctivitis - there is no special treatment, it will get better on its own. Allergic conjunctivitis may be helped by hayfever treatment (eg antihistamines)

Protection from conjunctivitis

Careful hand washing is most important to stop the spread of conjunctivitus, but even with this some viral conjunctivitis will spread quickly in places such as child care centres.
Children and adults with conjunctivitis should stay away from school, child care or work until it is better. Hand washing with soap after touching the child, disposal of tissues after one use and not sharing towels is important.

Cleaning sore eyes

Regular cleaning away of pus is useful to help the child feel better. It may help the infection clear up more quickly. Eyes can be cleaned either towards the nose from the outside in, or from the inside out, whichever is easier. It is important to use a separate cotton wool ball or tissue for each eye, and to use warm but not hot water. Wipe the closed eye gently but firmly to remove excess pus - do not clean inside the eyelids as this may cause damage to the conjunctiva or the cornea (the clear front of the eye).


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