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What is Neonatal Conjunctivitis (Ophthalmia Neonatorum)?

Neonatal conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a red eye in a newborn caused by infection from bacteria, viruses, or chemicals. Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the thin transparent layer of tissue covering the whites of the eye and the eyelid’s inner surface. The result of that inflammation is that the typically white part of the eye looks pink or red.

Ophthalmia neonatorum refers to a type of conjunctivitis that occurs in the neonatal period or within the first 28 days of life. This condition is commonly caused by a bacterial or viral pathogen acquired by a neonate (newborn) during passage through an infected birth canal. Historically, gonorrhea was the usual cause, but chlamydial infection is now more common. Untreated neonatal conjunctivitis can be severe and can lead to blindness.

Globally, neonatal conjunctivitis occurs in 1 to 12 percent of all newborns. However, neonatal conjunctivitis’s prevalence varies widely according to socio-economic conditions, health education, maternal healthcare, and type of prophylaxis (preventative treatment) used. In developed countries, the rate of this condition is less than .5%, but it is much more common in low-income countries.

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What Causes Neonatal Conjunctivitis?

The common causes of neonatal conjunctivitis are chemical, bacterial, and viral:

Chemical conjunctivitis is caused by eye drops, commonly made of silver nitrate, given to newborns to prevent a bacterial infection. These eye drops, used to prevent gonococcal conjunctivitis, can irritate the eyes. In the United States, this prophylaxis method has been replaced by tetracycline or erythromycin ointment.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria transferred from the mother’s birth canal to the baby during birth and is the most common cause of ophthalmia neonatorum. The most common type of bacterial conjunctivitis is chlamydial conjunctivitis, caused by Chlamydia trachomatis, which causes the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia. In the United States, 2% to 40% of neonatal conjunctivitis cases are caused by chlamydia. Other types of neonatal bacterial conjunctivitis include gonococcal conjunctivitis, caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea. Gonorrhea causes less than 1% of cases of neonatal conjunctivitis. Other bacteria that cause neonatal conjunctivitis include:

Bacterial conjunctivitis
  • Haemophilus species
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis
  • Streptococcus viridans
  • Escherichia coli
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Viral or infectious conjunctivitis is caused by a virus. Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and adenovirus are the most common viruses that lead to neonatal conjunctivitis. Adenoviral conjunctivitis is extremely contagious, and caregivers should use extreme caution and keep their hands clean to prevent the virus from spreading to others.

viral conjunctivitis

Symptoms of Neonatal Conjunctivitis

Symptoms of neonatal conjunctivitis usually appear within one day to two weeks after birth. Common symptoms include:

  • Redness in the eye
  • Mucopurulent or purulent discharge (liquid oozing from the eye)
  • Chemosis, or the edema (swelling) of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the eyelids
  • Symptoms present in both eyes

Neonatal conjunctivitis might also be asymptomatic, which is why practicing good prevention is essential.

Neonatal conjunctivitis should not be confused with keratitis, the inflammation of the cornea. If neonatal conjunctivitis is suspected, an ophthalmologist should examine the patient to rule out keratitis or other conditions.

How to Prevent Conjunctivitis in a Newborn

There are four strategies to prevent ophthalmia neonatorum:

  • Screen pregnant women for genital infection. All pregnant women should be screened for gonorrhea, herpes, and chlamydia  at their first prenatal visit. If they are infected, they should be treated before the baby is born.
  • Prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases from mother to child. If not tested for gonorrhea, herpes simplex virus, and chlamydia during pregnancy, pregnant mothers should be tested at delivery or before taking the baby home. Mothers with sexually transmitted infections must take measures to prevent neonatal conjunctivitis.  Babies born to women with untreated chlamydial disease at delivery have a 30-50% chance of developing ophthalmia neonatorum. Approximately 25% to 50% of infants exposed to C. trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhea develop neonatal conjunctivitis without prophylaxis. During pregnancy and before giving birth, women with genital herpes should consult with their doctor about ways to reduce the chances of spreading the infection to their newborn baby. Women with genital herpes may take acyclovir as a prophylaxis to prevent an outbreak that could spread to the child.
  • Provide topical or systemic eye prophylaxis at birth. State law requires most hospitals to put drops or ointment in a newborn’s eyes as ocular prophylaxis or preventative treatment administered to the eyes. Standard prophylaxis includes topical antibiotics, such as erythromycin or tetracycline ointment.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment of eye infections in newborns - All infants should receive ocular prophylaxis at birth to prevent gonococcal ophthalmia. If conjunctivitis is suspected, the newborn should be treated immediately.

An individual with a cold or virus should avoid contact with a newborn infant under the age of three months because cold and flu viruses sometimes cause neonatal conjunctivitis.

How Do You Treat Conjunctivitis in Babies?

If conjunctivitis is suspected, a doctor or ophthalmologist will perform various tests to determine the cause of conjunctivitis. Some standard tests include taking swabs for culture, a PCR test, and a gram test. If a bacterial infection is suspected, a doctor may use a gram stain to distinguish the type of bacteria that caused the illness to provide appropriate care.

Early diagnosis of neonatal conjunctivitis is essential because the infection can progress quickly. Even if the exact cause is undetermined at the onset of symptoms, patients should begin treatment immediately to prevent complications.

Common treatments for conjunctivitis in babies include:

  • Frequent irrigation with sterile isotonic saline, lubrication, or artificial tears
  • Avoiding eye patching
  • Topical erythromycin 
  • Antibiotic drops or ointments, including azithromycin or chloramphenicol
  • Antivirals such as acyclovir
  • Intravenous (IV) antibiotics such as ceftriaxone 
  • A warm compress to the eye
  • Isolation of a patient to prevent contagion spread
  • Treatment of mothers and their sexual partners in cases where sexually transmitted bacteria is the cause.

Dangers of Untreated Ophthalmia Neonatorum

If left untreated, ophthalmia neonatorum can lead to severe complications, including ulceration and perforation of the cornea, and blindness. The chlamydial infection can also cause pneumonia in neonates.

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Author: Kyra Wilians | UPDATED January 20, 2021
Medical reviewer: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.

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