Eye discharge is common in newborns and typically occurs due to a blocked tear duct. However, parents and caregivers can often treat this at home.

Eye discharge is typically harmless and self-resolving. However, discharge that occurs alongside other symptoms in the eye area, such as swelling or tenderness, could indicate an infection or another eye problem. A parent or caregiver of a newborn with these symptoms will need to consult a doctor.

This article discusses how common eye discharge is and explains how to treat it at home. We also cover medical treatment, other causes, complications, and when to contact a doctor.

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Eye discharge in newborns is common and rarely a cause for concern. A common cause of eye discharge is a blocked tear duct.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, almost 20% 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.

Tears form in the lacrimal gland, which sits just above the eye. Tear fluid helps clean and lubricate the surface of the eye. When a person blinks, the eyelids sweep the tear fluid into these ducts, which drain it into the nose.

If something blocks a tear duct, fluid may no longer be able to drain away from the eye’s surface. Blockages can cause very watery eyes, and sticky discharge may form in the corners.

Learn more about blocked tear ducts.

Blocked tear ducts are a common cause of eye discharge in infants. However, other conditions and factors can also cause discharge.

Conjunctivitis

Eye discharge in newborns can also be a sign of conjunctivitis or pinkeye. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, 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 appear red.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis in newborns can include:

  • drainage or discharge that develops between 5 and 12 days after birth
  • puffy or tender eyelids, often with skin discoloration
  • red, irritated eyes

Conjunctivitis in newborns can sometimes occur alongside a blocked tear duct. However, a pregnant person can also pass on a bacterial or viral infection to their baby when giving birth, leading to conjunctivitis.

Learn more about the symptoms of eye infections.

Chemical irritation

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 conjunctivitis symptoms.

Learn more about eye irritation.

If the eye discharge is due to a blocked tear duct, it will usually resolve without treatment within 4–6 months.

However, wind, cold weather, and strong sunlight can also worsen symptoms, so a parent or caregiver should aim to protect a newborn’s eyes from these elements.

Clearing discharge

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. A person should also 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.

Tearduct massage

A doctor may also recommend gently massaging the blocked tear duct to help it open, and they will demonstrate how to do this safely.

To massage the tear duct:

  • 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 within several months of birth. However, medical intervention may be necessary in some cases.

Surgery

If the blockage has not gone away by the baby is 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.

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.

Antibiotics

If an infection is causing eye discharge, the newborn will need prompt medical attention. To treat cases of infectious discharge, a doctor may prescribe topical, oral, or intravenous antibiotics.

Blocked tear ducts can sometimes lead to an infection called dacryocystitis. Symptoms of this condition 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
  • fever

If a newborn has any of these symptoms, a parent or caregiver should consult a doctor.

Newborns with eye discharge or very watery eyes should speak with a pediatrician or an eye doctor specializing in children, called a pediatric ophthalmologist. These healthcare professionals can diagnose the cause of the discharge and check for signs of infection.

Parents or caregivers should seek medical attention if an infant’s eye discharge persists for more than 6 months.

Newborns with signs of an eye infection require immediate medical attention. Signs of an eye infection can include:

  • sore or puffy eyes
  • swollen eyelids
  • yellow or green pus or discharge
  • a bump or swelling on the inside corner of the eye

If a parent or caregiver notices any of these symptoms, they should contact a doctor immediately.

Eye discharge in newborns is common and often results from 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 of the eyes should speak with a doctor to diagnose the cause and rule out an eye infection.

Parents and caregivers can treat a baby with a blocked tear duct at home by wiping away any discharge and gently massaging the area twice a day. A doctor can demonstrate how to do this.

Discoloration, swelling, or soreness in the eye can indicate an eye infection. Speak with a doctor immediately if an infant has these signs.