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What Can Cause Red Eyes in a Child?

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A close of a child's blue eye that is irritated and red

It’s common to experience redness when the eyes become irritated or another condition affects them. If your child has red eyes, what conditions cause this redness? 

Continue reading to learn more about red eyes, including what causes them and some potential eye conditions common in children. 

Why Do Eyes Turn Red? 

Red eyes can be a common problem for many people, including children. The eyes become red when the blood vessels on the eye’s surface expand due to irritation or infection. 

Eyes can become red over time or suddenly, depending on the condition causing them. Someone may experience red eyes with no other symptoms or alongside eye pain, itching, discharge, swelling, or vision changes. It’s common for a red eye to look worse than it feels.

Many eye conditions can cause red eyes, such as injury, allergy, or dryness. If your child has red eyes, what conditions can cause this to happen? 

What Can Cause Red Eyes in Children? 

There can be many underlying causes for eye redness in children. While many conditions are not a significant concern, it’s always important for an eye doctor to assess any problems. You can help protect your child’s vision and eye health. 

Some common causes of red eyes in children include: 

  • Viral conjunctivitis 
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis 
  • Corneal abrasion or foreign body
  • Blepharitis 
  • Allergic eye disease
A cartoon rendition of a young boy pointing to his sore, itchy, pink eye or viral conjunctivitis

Viral Conjunctivitis 

Viral conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is commonly caused by an illness, like having a cold. This form of pink eye is highly contagious and can develop after experiencing an upper respiratory infection. Symptoms typically start in one eye before spreading to the other. 

Signs of conjunctivitis include: 

  • Red eyes
  • Eyes that burn or itch
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Excessive tearing 
  • Yellow, watery, or stringy discharge from the eyes

There is no direct treatment for viral strains of pink eye but your optometrist can help your child feel more comfortable. Your optometrist may recommend supportive treatments, including non-antibiotic eye drops, resting your eyes, and using a cool compress. The infection should resolve with time. 

Bacterial Conjunctivitis 

Bacterial strains of pink eye occur due to direct contact with bacteria. Your child may develop this condition from touching their face with dirty hands or using contaminated makeup or facial lotions. The symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis are similar to the viral strain, however it usually involves much more yellow discharge.

Bacterial pink eye is highly contagious and requires treatment to resolve this condition. Your optometrist can prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments. 

Corneal Abrasion

A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the cornea, the clear and protective portion of the eye. Many small particles can scratch the cornea, such as dust, dirt, sand, contact lenses, or even a piece of paper. 

Signs of a corneal abrasion include: 

  • Pain
  • A gritty feeling in the eye
  • Watery eyes
  • Eye redness
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Headache 

If your child experiences a corneal abrasion, they need emergency treatment to prevent an infection. Before leaving for your eye doctor, flush your child’s eye out with artificial tears or an eyewash bottle if handy, if not available use clean water, and have them blink several times to remove as much debris as possible.  

Blepharitis 

Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelids. This condition can occur due to the tiny glands near the base of the eyelids becoming clogged, leading to irritation and inflammation, which can sometimes cause a bump called a stye. While uncomfortable for your child, blepharitis isn’t contagious and doesn’t cause permanent damage to the eyes. 

Some symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • Watery eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Itchy eyelids
  • Eyes that burn or sting 
  • Flaking of the skin around the eyes

You can help manage your child’s blepharitis by keeping their eyes clean and removing the crusted oily debris. Book an eye exam if symptoms persist despite following good hygiene. 

Allergic Eye Disease

Allergic eye disease is also called allergic conjunctivitis. This condition occurs when allergens enter the eye, causing an allergic reaction. Inflammation occurs, causing red, itchy, watery, and burning eyes. 

Your child may experience this allergic reaction for a short or extended period, depending on the allergy trigger. Treatment for this condition involves removing the allergy trigger, easing present symptoms, and minimizing future exposure to allergens. 

Common causes of allergic conjunctivitis include: 

  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Mould spores
  • Animal dander
  • Household detergents or perfume

These are some of the common causes of red eyes in children. While many conditions resolve with time, should you be concerned if your child develops red eyes? 

Are Red Eyes Concerning? 

Because there are many causes of red eyes, it’s difficult to know if they are a concern or not. Eye redness is often less concerning than eye pain or difficulty seeing

Redness typically goes away on its own, but sometimes it can mean a more significant problem. You should take your child to the optometrist if they experience:

  • Painful eyes
  • Worsened vision
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Symptoms continuing longer than a FEW DAYS
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Pus or mucus coming from the eye
  • Fever or aches

Ensure you take your child for an assessment if they experience red eyes alongside other concerning symptoms. Having your child’s eyes examined is beneficial, even if you think there are no significant problems. Your eye doctor can determine the cause of your child’s irritation and recommend an effective treatment plan. Contact your optometrist for an eye exam if your child is experiencing red eyes.

Written by Dr. Brent Hopfauf

Dr. Hopfauf is a born-and-raised Calgarian and one of the proud owners of Calgary Family Eye Doctors. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree with distinction from the University of Calgary, he headed to Ontario for the Optometry Program at the University of Waterloo. Upon graduation, Dr. Hopfauf was named Class Valedictorian. He has had the unique opportunity to further his training in ocular diseases in Houston, Texas and has studied specific conditions that include glaucoma, cataracts, dry eyes, and uveitis.
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