Ophthalmia neonatorum is conjunctivitis that occurs in a newborn. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the surface or covering of the eye. Any eye infection that occurs in the first month of a baby’s life can be classified as ophthalmia neonatorum.
The cause of the conjunctivitis may be an irritation in the eye or a blocked tear duct. In some cases, the irritation may be from the antibiotic given after delivery.
Bacteria can also cause an infection in the eye. The most common types of bacteria that cause infection in the infant’s eye come from the mother’s birth canal, and are passed to the infant during delivery. These infections can include:
The biggest risk factor for developing ophthalmia neonatorum is a maternal infection or STD at the time of delivery. The mother may not have any symptoms during delivery and still be able to transmit the infection. If you are pregnant, it is important to discuss any STDs that you have or had in the past. You and your doctor can develop a plan to protect your baby from infections during delivery.
The most common symptoms are redness and swelling of the conjunctiva in the newborn. If your baby has this or any of these other symptoms, see your baby's pediatrician:
If your baby’s pediatrician suspects ophthalmia neonatorum, an eye examination will be done. The doctor will look at your baby’s eyes to check for anything that may be irritating the eye, and to see if any damage has occurred. The doctor may also want to take a sample of any discharge to determine what type of bacteria or virus is causing the infection.
Since the potential for serious eye damage to the infant is so great, it is standard treatment in US hospitals to give infants antibiotic eye drops or ointment right after delivery. This helps prevent the development of an eye infection even if the mother shows no symptoms of infection.
In cases where conjunctivitis does develop, the treatment of ophthalmia neonatorum depends on the cause:
In cases of ophthalmia neonatorum that are due to a blocked tear duct, the doctor may recommend warm compresses and gentle massage to the area to help unclog the duct.
Ophthalmia neonatorum due to irritation usually improves on its own in a few days. In some cases, the irritation may be from the antibiotic given after delivery. Silver nitrate, which was often used in the past to prevent eye infection, can cause irritation in the baby’s eye. Many hospitals now use other types of antibiotics to avoid this irritation.
Infants that have an eye infection due to bacteria are given antibiotics. These antibiotics may be given as topical drops or ointments, orally, or as an injection. In addition, the eye may be washed to remove the discharge.
Fortunately, since hospitals today have such effective prevention measures, bacterial cases of ophthalmia neonatorum are rare. And when they do occur, they are usually identified quickly. Antibiotic treatment is very effective and the infection resolves quickly. If you suspect that your infant may have an infection in the eye, it is important to call your baby’s doctor as soon as possible to receive prompt treatment.
Prevention methods for ophthalmia neonatorum include:
An open, honest relationship with your doctor is important during your pregnancy. Disclosure of your full medical history can help protect your baby from infection.
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus
About Kids Health
Caring for Kids
Canadian Paediatric Society
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RE Behrman, RM Kliegman, HB Jenson. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics . 17th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2004.
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Last reviewed March 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 03/15/2013
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