Eye discharge is common among babies and toddlers, and most cases are due to tear duct blockages. Parents can typically treat the condition at home. But when discharge is accompanied by symptoms such as tenderness, swelling or redness, there may be another underlying problem for which treatment should be sought.
In this guide, we will discuss whether infant eye discharge is normal and show how to treat it. We’ll also cover other causes, potential complications and treatments, and when to take a baby to the doctor.
Why Do Babies Have Eye Discharge?
Many parents wonder why their babies have eye discharge. Eye discharge or mucus is one of the body’s natural defenses. It helps to remove harmful debris and waste from the eyes, and it helps to keep them lubricated so they don’t dry out.
Discharge is automatically flushed away, along with debris, when a person blinks. Most eye discharge consists of thin, watery mucus. Known as mucin, this mucus is produced in the conjunctiva.
Is My Baby’s Eye Discharge Normal?
Eye discharge is common among infants and toddlers. Though it’s not usually a cause for worry, it can be unnerving to parents. Most cases are due to tear duct blockages, which doctors refer to as nasolacrimal duct obstructions, or dacryostenosis. Tears are made in the lacrimal glands, which sit right above the eyes. They serve an important function because they help to lubricate and clean eye surfaces.
The nasolacrimal or tear ducts are small channels that sit in the corner of the eye close to the nose. When a baby blinks, the eyelids move the tears into the ducts, draining them into the nose. When a tear duct blockage occurs, tear fluids may not be drained away from the eye’s surface. Blockages cause the eyes to water and form sticky discharge at the corners.
Statistics from the American Academy of Ophthalmology show that about 20% of newborns experience tear duct blockages.  The condition may occur when the end of a tear duct doesn’t fully open at birth, and it may affect either or both of an infant’s eyes.
Should Eye Boogers Be Treated?
If your baby only has eye discharge upon awaking, there’s no need for treatment. However, if the discharge has another cause, it may be treated with eye drops, which treat conditions such as corneal ulcers, dry eyes or pink eye (conjunctivitis). Consult your child’s pediatrician if eye boogers are persistent.
Treatment at Home
If the child’s eye discharge occurs because of a tear duct blockage, it will likely resolve itself in four to six months without treatment. Parents and other caregivers can treat newborns with blocked tear ducts at home. Before touching areas close to a child’s eyes, though, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water and rinse them thoroughly.
To remove the discharge, dip a clean cloth or gauze in luke warm water and gently wipe the affected area. If a tear duct blockage exists in both eyes, use a fresh piece of gauze or cloth for each eye. Cold weather, sunlight, and wind may worsen symptoms, so parents should protect babies’ eyes from such elements.
Doctors recommend massaging blocked tear ducts to open them up,and it’s easy to do safely. Here’s how you do it:
- Begin by lightly pressing the tip of an index finger against the inner bridge of the baby’s nose, near the blocked duct.
- Make two or three downward strokes along that side of the baby’s nose. Pressure should be firm, yet gentle.
- Massage the affected area twice per day, once upon awaking and once before bedtime.
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if the baby’s nose becomes swollen or red, stop treatment immediately and call a doctor.
Doctors often use anesthetic eye drops in the treatment of tear duct blockages. In babies, these blockages often open on their own. However, if the tear duct blockage hasn’t cleared up by the time the child reaches his or her first birthday, a pediatrician may recommend a treatment known as nasolacrimal duct probing.
This procedure involves the insertion of a tiny probe into the affected tear duct. By using ever-larger probes, a doctor can gradually remove the blockage and open the duct. Afterward, the doctor will use sterile saline solution to flush away any debris. In some cases, doctors insert stents (small tubes) to keep the tear ducts open.
Before performing such a procedure, a doctor may give a baby anesthetic eye drops or put them under light general anesthesia. This practice minimizes pain and distress and helps the child remain still during treatment. Probing is typically successful, but for children with severe blockages, a pediatrician may recommend a more complex surgery known as a dacryocystorhinostomy to open and clear the tear ducts.
Other Causes of Eye Discharge in Babies and Toddlers
Newborns and toddlers get eye discharge for various reasons. Some cases are due to conjunctivitis, which is an inflammation of the thin membrane protecting the eye.  Unlike a tear duct blockage, conjunctivitis may cause the white of the eye to turn red.
The symptoms of conjunctivitis in babies may include:
- Discharge or drainage that occurs within one to 14 days after childbirth
- Tender, red, or puffy eyelids
- Irritated, red eyes
Conjunctivitis in babies may occur along with a tear duct blockage. However, pregnant women can pass viral or bacterial infections to their babies during birth, which can also cause conjunctivitis. If the condition arises from an infection, it may be serious enough to warrant an immediate doctor visit.
If the baby’s eye discharge is due to an infection, a pediatrician may prescribe intravenous, oral, or topical antibiotics. Applying a gentle warm compress to the affected eye may reduce swelling and soothe irritation.
Newborn conjunctivitis sometimes occurs due to chemicalirritation. Doctors and nurses sometimes give babies antibacterial drops toprevent infection. These drops may cause irritation that leads toconjunctivitis and other issues.
Complications Associated with Eye Discharge
Tear duct blockages may lead to an infection known asdacryocystitis. The symptoms of this condition may include:
- An excessive amount of thick eye discharge
- Redness at the corner of the eye
- Swelling or tender bumps at the affected side of the nose
- A low-grade fever
If your child has any of the above symptoms, consider taking them to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Can Babies Get Eyelid Cellulitis?
Cellulitis of the eyelid is a very serious condition affecting the tissues of the eyelid and the surrounding area , and babies may get it after a case of bacterial conjunctivitis. Children with the condition will have very swollen and tender eyelids that are difficult to close. If your child has these symptoms, make a pediatrician’s appointment immediately.
When Eye Discharge is Serious Enough to See a Doctor
If your child’s tear ducts haven’t opened after a few months, make an appointment with his or her pediatrician. Newborns with watery eyes or excessive discharge should see a doctor or a pediatric ophthalmologist right away. These healthcare team members can determine the cause of eye discharge and look for signs of serious infection.
The signs of an eye infection may include:
- Puffy, sore or red eyes
- Swollen eyelids
- Green or yellow discharge with pus
- Swelling or a bump at the inside corner of an affected eye
Your child’s doctor may recommend drops or other treatments to reduce pain and swelling while eliminating infection.
Are Eye Infections Contagious?
Some eye infections, such as pink eye, are very contagious. Except when administering ointment or eye drops, avoid direct contact with the child’s eyes or the discharge from them until the medicine has been in use for a few days and the redness has started to clear.
Eye Discharge is Normal in Newborns
Eye discharge is quite normal in newborns, and it’s usually due to a blockage within a tear duct. Most of these blockages clear up within four to six months, but some require further treatment. If your child has eye discharge along with redness and excessive watering, you should make a doctor’s appointment to determine the cause and rule out a serious infection.
Caregivers can treat babies with tear duct blockages with gentle massage and removal of the discharge. Call your pediatrician right away if there’s soreness, swelling, or redness in the eye. With the information in this guide from TheraLife, you’ll know how to spot the signs of a problem and keep your child’s eyes healthy.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-blocked-tear-duct
- WebMD https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/eye-health-conjunctivitis#1
- MedicineNet https://www.medicinenet.com/cellulitis_eyelid/article.htm