Kids Health Info


  • Conjunctivitis is a common eye infection, especially among children under five. It is an inflammation (swelling and redness) of the conjunctiva which is the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids.


    Conjunctivitis can be caused by an infection (virus or bacteria) which is highly contagious, or by an allergic reaction which is not contagious.

    You could develop conjunctivitis if you come into contact with:

    • Discharge from the eyes, nose or throat of an infected person through touch, coughing or sneezing.
    • Contaminated fingers or objects.
    • In summertime, conjunctivitis can be spread when children swim in contaminated water or share contaminated towels.

    A person with conjunctivitis will remain infectious as long as there is a discharge from their eye.

    Signs and symptoms

    Conjunctivitis can be caused by an infection (virus or bacteria) or by an allergic reaction. It is not always clear which type of conjunctivitis is present, because both cause redness and swelling of the conjunctiva. Symptoms usually develop within 24 to 72 hours of becoming infected and last from two days to three weeks.

    Bacterial Conjunctivits

    Both eyes are almost always infected with bacterial conjunctivitis, although it may start in just one eye. There is likely to be a gritty feeling and pus.

    Viral Conjunctivitis

    Conjunctivitis from a virus may involve one or both eyes, causing red itchy eyes with a 'weepy' discharge.


    There will often be other signs of hay fever if the inflammation is the result of an allergy.  Signs can include an itchy, runny nose and sneezing or a history of other allergic conditions. The eyes are itchy and watery.

    Other Symptoms

    • redness behind the eyelid, spreading up the white of the eye
    • swelling of the eye/s making them appear puffy
    • excessive tears
    • a discharge from the eye which dries when the child sleeps, causing crusting around the eyelids
    • a dislike of bright lights (photophobia)


    Viral conjunctivitis

    There is no specific treatment and it will get better on its own. Gentle cleaning of the eyes with cotton balls soaked in warm water may help them feel better. Clean in one direction only (either towards the nose from the outside in, or away from the nose, whichever is easier).  Discard the cotton ball each time to prevent recontamination. DO NOT try to clean inside the eyelids as this may cause damage to the conjunctiva.

    Bacterial conjunctivitis

    This form of conjunctivitis may need antibiotic ointment or drops prescribed by a doctor. Treatment should be applied to both eyes, even if only one eye appears to be infected.

    Allergic conjunctivitis

    Sore, inflamed eyes due to allergies may be helped by treatments used in conditions such as hay fever, eg antihistamines.


    See a doctor if your child has:

    • severe pain
    • problems with their vision/eyesight
    • increased swelling, redness and tenderness in the eyelids and around the eyes
    • is generally unwell and has a fever (temperature over 38oC)

    Key points to remember

    • Conjunctivitis can be an infectious or allergic condition.  If infectious it is often highly contagious.
    • Symptoms last from two days to three weeks.
    • Be sure to wash hands with warm soapy water often to prevent the infection spreading to others.
    • Do not share eye drops, tissues, make-up, towels or pillowcases with other people.
    • Children with conjunctivitis should be kept home from childcare, kindergarten or school.
    • The child is infectious until discharge from the eyes has disappeared.

    For more information

    • See your local GP


    Developed by the RCH Short Stay Unit. First published July 2008. Updated November 2010.

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This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.