A toddler can have discharge coming from their eye for many reasons. In most cases, the cause is relatively harmless, such as a clogged tear duct or viral infection.
However, any eye pain or discharge that makes it difficult to see can be distressing. If it does not go away on its own, it warrants a visit to a doctor.
In this article, we discuss the causes and treatment of eye discharge in a toddler and explain when to see a doctor.
Eye discharge symptoms vary depending on the cause. Sometimes, the only sign that a parent or caregiver notices is discharge.
If there are other symptoms, it is more likely that the toddler has an infection or an object in their eye. Some symptoms to watch for include:
- eye pain
- constant eye rubbing
- being unwilling or unable to open the eye
- eye swelling
- swelling of the face
- red streaks coming out of the eye
A toddler can have mucus or discharge coming from their eye for several reasons.
Normal eye discharge
Healthy eyes produce mucus.
Parents or caregivers may notice dried or sticky mucus in the corner of the child’s eye. It may appear green, yellow, white, or clear.
Sometimes, the eyes produce more mucus when a toddler rubs them with dirty hands or gets an eyelash in their eye.
The discharge is probably normal if the mucus only appears in the morning or after sleep.
However, it may have another cause if it does not go away on its own, it gets worse, or the toddler complains of a painful eye.
Conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye, causes the tissue that lines the eyes to become red, painful, and inflamed.
A viral infection is the most common cause of pinkeye. Viral pinkeye usually presents in both eyes.
An affected eye may look red and swollen. While a bacterial infection can cause the eye to ooze pus, this is unlikely with a viral infection.
Viral conjunctivitis usually goes away on its own within 2–3 weeks.
A bacterial infection occurs when harmful bacteria get into the eye, causing an infection.
Bacterial conjunctivitis, which is a type of pinkeye, is one of the most common bacterial eye infections. It can present in one or both eyes.
The eye may be sore and swollen, and the whites of the eyes may turn red. The eye may water a lot and produce green or yellow mucus.
While some cases of bacterial conjunctivitis go away on their own, some toddlers need antibiotics to treat the infection.
Blocked tear duct
A blocked tear duct means that one or more tear ducts cannot easily drain.
This is common in young babies, but some toddlers may also have blockages. The eye may look watery, as though the toddler is crying.
If the eye becomes red or irritated, the tear duct may be infected.
Object in the eye
Any object that gets into the eye can cause it to water and feel irritated. The object could be a speck of dust, an eyelash, or something larger, such as a piece of glass.
A toddler may not want to open their eyes or might complain that it feels as though something is in their eye. If the object is large or scratches the eye, the eye can become infected.
Cellulitis is a serious infection of the deep layers of skin in and around the eye.
Without treatment, it can spread to other areas of the body and may even threaten a toddler’s sight.
The eye may be very painful, red, and swollen. Some parents and caregivers notice cellulitis following a stye or other eye infection.
They may also see red streaks coming out of the eye. The toddler may have a watery eye or trouble seeing, or the eye may feel hot. In some cases, cellulitis causes a fever.
Anyone who suspects that their toddler has cellulitis should talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
A stye is a painful, red lump that may look like a pimple. Stye symptoms, such as eye pain and swelling, sometimes appear before the pimple becomes noticeable.
Styes happen when a hair follicle on the eyelid becomes infected. When the stye oozes or pops, it can cause discharge in the eye.
Most styes go away on their own, but some become infected or turn into a hard lump called a chalazion.
The type of treatment will depend on the cause of the eye discharge.
If something small is in the toddler’s eye, a person can try gently rubbing the closed eye toward the nose. When there is a large object in the eye, or it is impossible to remove the object, it is important to see a doctor.
Warm compresses often ease symptoms of styes and blocked tear ducts. If warm compresses do not help, this may signal a more serious problem, such as an infection.
A doctor may recommend:
- antibiotics for bacterial infections
- steroids for viral infections or allergic reactions that do not go away
- surgery for a blocked tear duct that does not clear on its own
Some strategies to prevent eye discharge in a toddler include:
- making sure that they wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading possible infection
- encouraging the toddler only to touch their eyes with clean hands
- avoiding getting lotion or other skin products in their eyes
- keeping their eyes and face clean
- ensuring that they wear eye protection during any activities that might injure the eye
- keeping the toddler with an eye infection home from school
It is usually safe to wait a few days to see whether symptoms clear on their own.
However, it is important to see a doctor if the toddler is in intense pain, the eye is very swollen, the toddler has a fever, or there is an obvious physical injury to the eye.
People will also need to take a toddler to see a doctor if the symptoms do not improve with home treatment, the symptoms get worse, or any of the following appears:
- a very red or swollen eye or eyelid
- the inability to open the eye
- intense eye pain
- red streaks coming out of the eye
Immediate medical care is necessary if:
- there is a large object in the eye
- the eye is bleeding
- the toddler has symptoms of cellulitis, such as a very swollen, red eye and a fever
Eye discharge is a common problem for toddlers, who may touch their eyes with dirty hands, spreading irritants, viruses, and bacteria.
The discharge usually gets better with home treatment.
However, parents or caregivers should seek help straightaway if the toddler is experiencing serious eye pain or if symptoms do not improve on their own.
The eyes are delicate, and serious infections can threaten a person’s sight.