Eye discharge is common in newborns and is commonly due to a blocked tear duct. A person can often treat an infant with a blocked tear duct at home.
However, discharge that occurs alongside other symptoms in the eye area, such as redness, swelling, or tenderness, may be a sign of an infection or another eye problem. A newborn with these symptoms will need to see a doctor.
In this article, we discuss whether eye discharge is normal and explain how to treat it at home. We also cover medical treatment, other causes, complications, and when to see a doctor.
Eye discharge in newborns is common and rarely a cause for concern.
A common cause of eye discharge is a blocked tear duct. Doctors sometimes refer to this condition as dacryostenosis or nasolacrimal duct obstruction.
Tears form in the lacrimal gland, which sits just above the eye. Tear fluid helps clean and lubricate the surface of the eye.
The tear duct, or nasolacrimal duct, is a small channel that sits in the corner of the eye near the nose. When a person blinks, the eyelids sweep the tear fluid into these ducts, which drain it into the nose.
If the tear duct becomes blocked, tear fluid may no longer be able to drain away from the surface of the eye. Blockages can cause very watery eyes, and sticky discharge may form in the corners.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, almost 20 percent of newborns have a blocked tear duct. This condition can occur because the end of the tear duct does not open properly when the baby is born. A blocked tear duct can affect one or both of the infant's eyes.
If the eye discharge is due to a blocked tear duct, it will usually resolve without treatment within 4 to 6 months.
A parent or caregiver can often treat a newborn with a blocked tear duct at home. Before touching the area close to the child's eyes, it is essential to wash the hands with soap and warm water to prevent infections. Take care to rinse the hands thoroughly after cleaning them to avoid getting soap in the baby's eye.
To clear away discharge, dip a clean piece of gauze or soft cloth in some lukewarm water then gently wipe the corner of the eye. If a blocked tear duct affects both eyes, always use a new area of the cloth or gauze to clean the other eye.
Wind, cold weather, and strong sunlight can all make symptoms worse, so it may help to protect a newborn's eyes from these elements.
A doctor may also recommend gently massaging the blocked tear duct to help it open, and they will demonstrate how to do this safely.
- Lightly press the tip of the index finger against the inside bridge of the newborn's nose, on the side of the blocked tear duct.
- Make 2 or 3 short downward strokes with the finger along the side of the nose. These should be gentle but firm.
- Perform the massage twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
If the side of the newborn's nose becomes red or swollen, stop the massage immediately and contact a doctor.
In newborns, blocked tear ducts tend to open up on their own within several months of the birth. However, if the blockage has not resolved by 1 year of age, a doctor may recommend a medical treatment called a nasolacrimal duct probing.
This procedure involves inserting a small probe into the infant's tear duct. By using probes that gradually increase in size, a doctor will be able to open up the tear duct. They will then use a saline solution to flush out any remaining debris.
Sometimes, the doctor may also insert a small tube, or stent, into the duct to keep it open.
Before carrying out this procedure, the doctor may give the infant anesthetic eye drops or place them under a light general anesthetic. Doing this will prevent the toddler from feeling any pain or distress.
Probing is usually successful in opening the tear duct. For children with a severe blockage, a doctor may recommend a more complicated surgical procedure called a dacryocystorhinostomy to clear out and open the tear duct.
Eye discharge in newborns can also be a sign of conjunctivitis, or pinkeye. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is a thin membrane that protects the front of the eye. Unlike a blocked tear duct, conjunctivitis often causes the white part of the eye to become red.
Symptoms of conjunctivitis in newborns can include:
- drainage or discharge that develops between 1 and 14 days after birth
- puffy, red, or tender eyelids
- red, irritated eyes
Conjunctivitis in newborns can sometimes occur alongside a blocked tear duct. However, a pregnant woman can also pass on a bacterial or viral infection to the baby when giving birth, which can lead to conjunctivitis.
If conjunctivitis is due to an infection, it can be serious, and the newborn will need to see a doctor straight away.
If an infection is causing the eye discharge, a doctor may prescribe topical, oral, or intravenous antibiotics.
Applying a warm cloth to the infected eye can help soothe irritation and reduce swelling.
Chemical irritation can also cause conjunctivitis in newborns. Healthcare professionals often give antibacterial eye drops to newborns to prevent infections. These eye drops can sometimes cause irritation that can result in symptoms of conjunctivitis.
Blocked tear ducts can sometimes lead to an infection called dacryocystitis. Symptoms of dacryocystitis may include:
- excessive thick discharge from the eye
- redness in the corner of the eye
- a tender bump or swelling at the side of the nose
If a newborn has any of these symptoms, a parent or caregiver should take them to see a doctor.
Newborns with eye discharge or very watery eyes should see a pediatrician or an eye doctor who specializes in children, called a pediatric ophthalmologist. These healthcare professionals can diagnose the cause of the discharge and check for signs of infection.
It is also important to seek medical advice for an infant if their tear duct remains blocked after 6 to 8 months.
Newborns with signs of an eye infection should see a doctor immediately. Signs of an eye infection can include:
- red, sore, or puffy eyes
- swollen eyelids
- yellow or green pus or discharge
- a bump or swelling on the inside corner of the eye
Eye discharge in newborns is common and often the result of a blocked tear duct. The blockage will usually clear up by itself within 4 to 6 months.
However, newborns with eye redness, eye discharge, or excessive watering from the eyes should see a doctor to diagnose the cause and to rule out an eye infection.
Parents and caregivers can treat a baby with a blocked tear duct at home by wiping away discharge and gently massaging the area twice a day. A doctor can demonstrate how to do this.
Redness, swelling, or soreness in the eye area can indicate an eye infection. Speak to a doctor immediately if an infant has these signs.