How to Help Kids with Teary, Itchy Eyes

Help for kids with itchy, teary eyes


October 18, 2016

Here’s how to treat your little one for mild eye irritation and when to seek treatment.


Recently, I had the opportunity to see a problem that children often experience. We were saddling my sister’s horses, gathering the dogs and children to head out on a family trail ride when my nephew, then 4, came down the steps rubbing a red, tearing eye with his little fist. The more he rubbed, the redder the eye became.

Mild eye irritation can occur due to seasonal allergies, dry eyes from too much TV or screen time, or fine particles that get into the eyes on windy or dusty days (which was what happened to my nephew).

What can moms and dads do to soothe their children’s red, itching eyes?

For immediate relief of suspected mild eye irritation (pink or redness of the white portion of your child’s eye, with or without clear tears):

  • Rinse your child’s eyes with artificial tears. Most children don’t enjoy this and will squeeze their eyes shut. Luckily, it can be accomplished with their eyes closed. Put two or three drops in the inner corner of the closed eye, and the fluid will wash across the eye when the lid naturally opens. Repeat the process several  times. Attempting to pull the eye lids open often irritates the eyelids making them red and swollen.
  • Keep single packets of artificial tears in your refrigerator. Cool tears are more soothing to the eye. Plus, single packets keep the artificial tears sterile for long periods of time; repeatedly using one larger bottle of tears increases the chance of getting germs in the bottle. Single packets may cost a little more, but in the long run they are safer.
  • Give your child a dose of one of these (based on weight, click here for guidance):  ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to ease the discomfort.
  • Apply cool compresses to the eye area for a few minutes.

These tips were helpful for my little nephew. His mommy rinsed his eyes with cool artificial tears, gave him a dose of ibuprofen, and we were off on the trail without further problems. A few hours later, you couldn’t tell anything had been wrong.

When to get help for itch, teary eyes

How do you know if your child needs to be seen by your pediatrician or in an After-Hours clinics?

If their eyes continue to have symptoms, it is probably time to have them seen. It typically can wait till the next day, but they should be seen right away if there is:

  • Suspicion of eye injury or foreign body in the eye.  Common causes of injury can include simple things like sticks, fingers, sports play, balls, even pencils and pens.
  • Light sensitivity. If you child won’t keep the eye open, it can be a sign of a more serious problem.
  • Yellow or green drainage that must be repeatedly wiped away (not the early morning “sleep” in the eye that does not return after clearing).
  • A fever with red eye and/or swollen red eyelids. This can mean a more serious eye infection.
  • Complaint of true eye pain. Usually this will be accompanied by other symptoms such as those just listed.

Repeatedly rubbing the eye is the most common way children try to relieve their own eye discomfort. It is best avoided because doing so can cause more damage. Even if you are taking them to be evaluated, gently rinse the eyes before leaving home to help reduce discomfort and limit the rubbing.

These suggestions are only guidelines. If your gut tells you there is reason for concern, follow your own good parental instincts and have your child seen by a pediatric provider.

This post was written by pediatrician Monica Pierson, M.D., of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but we recommend calling your pediatrician first. Learn more about services and find locations for Children’s Hospital After-Hours Clinics here.