Ophthalmia neonatorum is conjunctivitis that occurs in a newborn. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the surface or covering of the eye. Ophthalmia neonatorum occurs in the first month of life.
The earlier ophthalmia neonatorum is identified, the better the outcomes.
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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:
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—The most common bacteria passed to infants during delivery are due to STDs from the mother’s birth canal. If untreated, many of these infections can cause serious damage to the infant’s eye. STDs that can cause eye damage include:
- Skin bacteria
- Bacteria from the mother’s gastrointestinal tract
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. Ophthalmia neonatorum may also cause:
- Drainage and discharge from the eye; it may be watery or thick and pus-like
- Swollen eyelids
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.
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.
- Antibiotic ointment will be started right away
- Antibiotics are also given orally or as an injection if caused by an STD.
In addition, the eye may be washed to remove the discharge.
Bacterial cases of ophthalmia neonatorum are rare because of hospital infection prevention measures. When they do occur, they are usually identified quickly. Antibiotic treatment is very effective and the infection resolves quickly.
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. Prevention methods for ophthalmia neonatorum include:
- Antibiotic eye ointment given to the infant after birth
- Treating the mother for any STDs prior to labor and delivery
for mothers with active genital herpes lesions
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.
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Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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