Newborn Eye Discharge: Causes & How to Clean Eyes

Newborn eye discharge is usually noted due to conjunctivitis, although it may also occur with a flu, cold, or blocked tear duct. The discharge usually is yellow in color and can be liquid or crusted, usually accumulating on or within the bottom  eyelid.

In most cases, eye discharge can be accompanied by other symptoms like itching, redness and tearing. The baby can be noted to rub their eyes frequently, which can cause further irritation. It is important to monitor and prevent rubbing, and to keep the eyes as clean as possible. 

Treatment for eye discharge in newborns depends on the case. The doctor may advise cleansing eye saline solution, or prescribe eye drops or antibiotics as necessary. 

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Main causes

The main causes of newborn eye discharge are: 

1. Cold or flu

A cold or flu can cause symptoms like a plugged nose, coughing, and fever, as well as yellow discharge around the eyes. 

What to do: Treatment consists of keeping the baby’s eyes clean and strengthening the immune system with a healthy diet. You can give the baby orange and lemon juice, if not contraindicated by the doctor.

2. Blocked tear duct

The tear duct serves to lubricate the oil and protect it from foreign invaders. Therefore, if the tear duct becomes blocked, tear production becomes compromised, which can lead to the growth of bacteria in the area. This can cause yellow eye discharge, and is most commonly seen in the first weeks of life. 

What to do: This obstruction typically improves with treatment given over the first year of life. It consists of cleansing the eyes with saline solution and massaging the area lightly. In serious cases, the pediatrician may recommend a minor surgical procedure. 

3. Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivits in babies is characterized by inflammation of the membranes that line the eyes and the eye lids. It causes eye redness, intense itching, tearing and crust. 

What to do: Treatment for conjunctivitis in babies should be monitored by a pediatrician and usually involves the use of eyedrops of antibiotic or antihistamine ointments. The doctor will usually recommend cleansing of the eyes with vapor or saline, depending on the type of conjunctivitis. 

How to clean the baby’s eyes 

Warm water should be applied to the baby’s face every day during a bath. You should not use soap or hygiene products on the face, as it can cause irritation in the eyes. However, to correctly cleanse the eyes, especially during eye conditions like conjunctivitis, you should:

  • Soak a piece of gauze with saline solution or freshly-made, cold chamomile tea 
  • Pass the gauze over the eye, one at a time, from the corner to the outside. This swift movement will help to prevent tear duct obstructions. 

It is also important to switch gauzes when cleaning the other eye to avoid spread of any possible bacteria. You should clean the baby’s eyes like this until they are one years old, even if they are asymptomatic. 

In addition to keeping the baby’s eyes clean, the nose should also be clean and free from discharge, as the tear ducts can become blocked with a plugged nose. This can lead to the growth of viruses or bacteria. To clear a baby’s nose, you should clean the external nostril with a thin ear swab soaked in saline solution. You can then use an aspirator to remove and dirt or discharge. 

When to see the doctor

You should take the baby to the doctor if eye discharge is yellow and thick and if you need to clean the baby’s eyes at least 3 times per day. If the baby wakes from sleep with heavily crusted eyes and has difficulty opening them, you should take the baby to the doctor for assessment of conjunctivitis.

The baby should also see a doctor if they have other symptoms in addition to eye discharge, like cough, phlegm, fast breathing, fever or irritability, as these may indicate a respiratory infection.