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Neonatal conjunctivitis

Contents of this page:

Alternative Names   

Newborn conjunctivitis; Conjunctivitis of the newborn; Ophthalmia neonatorum

Definition    Return to top

Neonatal conjunctivitis is a red eye in a newborn caused by irritation, a blocked tear duct, or infection.

Causes    Return to top

Conjunctivitis in a newborn may be caused by a blocked tear duct, irritation produced by the antibiotic eyedrops given at birth, or infection. Neonate conjunctivitis that is caused by an infection can be very serious.

Many organisms can cause infection in the eyes of newborn infants. The most common bacterial infections with that can cause serious eye damage are gonorrhea (Neisseria gonorrhea) and chlamydia (Chlamydia trachomatis), which can be passed from mother to child during birth.

The viruses that cause genital and oral herpes can also cause neonatal conjunctivitis and severe eye damage. Such viruses may also be passed to the baby during childbirth. However, herpes conjunctivitis is less common than conjunctivitis caused by gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Bacteria that normally live in a woman's vagina, which are not sexually transmitted, can also cause neonatal conjunctivitis.

The mother may be without symptoms (asymptomatic ) at the time of delivery, yet still carry bacteria or viruses that can cause conjunctivitis in the newborn. Infected newborn infants develop drainage from the eyes within 1 day to 2 weeks after birth. The eyelids become puffy, red, and tender.

Because of the significance of neonatal conjunctivitis, all hospitals (most required by state law) routinely use silver nitrate or antibiotic drops, such as erythromycin, in a newborn's eyes to prevent disease. Silver nitrate is no longer commonly used, and has been mostly replaced by antibiotic eye drops.

Symptoms    Return to top

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Treatment    Return to top

Topical antibiotic eye drops and ointments, oral antibiotics, and intravenous antibiotics are all used depending on the severity of the infection and the organism responsible for it.

Occasionally, topical and oral (or topical and intravenous) routes may be used simultaneously. Irrigation of the eye with normal saline is done to remove the purulent drainage that accumulates.

If the conjunctivitis is caused by a blocked tear duct, gentle warm massage between the eye and nasal area may help. If it is not cleared by one year of age, surgery may be required.

Eye irritation caused by the eye drops given at birth should resolve on its own.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Early recognition of infected mothers and good hospital preventive practices have reduced conjunctivitis of the newborn to very low levels. Infants who do develop conjunctivitis and are quickly treated generally have good outcomes.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Talk to your health care provider if you have given birth (or expect to give birth) to a baby in a setting where antibiotic or silver nitrate drops are not routinely placed in the infant's eyes -- for example, an unsupervised birth at home. This is especially important if you have had, or are at risk for, any sexually-transmitted disease.

Prevention    Return to top

Treatment of a pregnant woman for sexually-transmitted diseases will prevent conjunctivitis in the neonate. Even if the mother's infection has not been recognized, prophylactic eye drops put into the infant's eyes immediately after birth help prevent many infections, and these drops are used routinely for all births.

A cesarean section is recommended when the mother has active herpes lesions at the time of delivery. Antibiotics, given intravenously, may be given to infants of mothers with untreated gonorrhea. However, antibiotic eye drops may not prevent chlamydial conjunctivitis.

Update Date: 10/15/2007

Updated by: Deirdre O’Reilly, MD, MPH, Neonatologist, Division of Newborn Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston and Instructor in Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Review Provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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