Treating swollen eyes in toddlers and children
Parents of a toddler or young child understand how easy it is for something “wrong” to develop overnight. Everything can look fine when you put your child to bed, then they wake up with swollen eyes the next morning.
Note: It’s not the eyes but the eyelids that are swollen. The conjunctiva and cornea can swell up when inflamed, but not the whole eyeball.
While swelling of your child’s eyelids is not something to ignore, it’s fairly simple to assess the swelling and determine how to proceed with treatment. Seeking prompt care from an eye doctor is usually the best thing to do if you are uncertain about the cause of your toddler’s swollen eyelids.
Read on to learn what to look for when your toddler has swollen eyelids, how to apply that information to discover the cause and what treatment best may best suit your child’s condition.
What to look for when your toddler’s eyes are swollen
When examining your child’s swollen eyelids, there are a few things to ask yourself to help determine the potential cause of the swelling:
How serious is the eyelid swelling?
Mild: Eyelids are slightly swollen, but the eyes open normally
Moderate: Eyelids are noticeably swollen and the eyes open only partially
Severe: Eyes are swollen shut
Is the sclera (white part of the eyes) red or irritated?
Are both eyes swollen or only one of them?
Are any other parts of the face/body swollen?
Is there yellow or green eye discharge?
Is your child rubbing the eye?
If your child’s eye swelling is due to an injury to the eye, head or face, it’s important to seek help from a medical or eye care professional immediately. Further testing is required to ensure the safety of your child’s vision and overall well-being.
SEE RELATED: Swollen eyelid FAQ
What could be causing your toddler’s swollen eyes?
Getting to the bottom of what’s causing your child’s swollen eyelids requires you to divide symptoms into two categories: swelling in one eye versus swelling in both eyes.
Swelling in one eye
If swelling is present in only one eye, here are some potential causes:
Rubbing the eye: When we rub our eyes, cells around the eyes called mast cells, release histamine. Histamine often causes swelling and (like a mosquito bite) makes the area itchier as you rub/scratch it. So the more your toddler rubs their eye, the more swollen and itchy it becomes.
Stye: A stye is an infected gland in the eyelid caused by staphylococcal bacteria, commonly found in your nose. Styes can develop on the inside or outside of the eyelid and cause swelling. Styes are not contagious.
Insect bite: When bitten by an insect, particularly mosquitos, children are prone to developing welts at the site of the bite. If they were bitten near the eye, swelling could occur. To confirm a bug bite is the cause, it’s best to check the rest of your toddler’s body to see if more bites are present.
Blocked tear duct: This is common among babies 12 months or younger. Blocked tear ducts make it difficult for tears to drain properly, which normally takes place through a duct that connects the eyelids to the nose (nasolacrimal duct). Blockage of this “tear duct” can cause eyelid swelling and crusty debris at the eyelid margins.
Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction caused by an irritant (like poison ivy) that comes into contact with the skin. Like bug bites, it’s good to check the rest of your child’s skin for other affected areas.
Cellulitis of the eye: This is a very serious cause of swollen eyelids that can affect toddlers. Cellulitis of the eye is a bacterial infection in the eyelid and tissues surrounding the eye. Risk factors include a recent injury to the eye area or a sinus infection. In addition to swollen eyelids, your child is likely to have pain around the eyes and a fever. (The eye itself, however, may look normal.) Cellulitis of the eye is a dangerous condition, and if your toddler has this combination of symptoms, you should seek medical attention quickly.
Swelling in both eyes
If swelling is present in both eyes, it could be due to the following conditions:
Bacterial conjunctivitis: Pink eye caused by a bacterial infection is common in children and is contagious. Typically, the whites of the eyes will appear pink or red in addition to swollen eyelids, and there may be a yellow or green discharge from the child's eye.
Viral conjunctivitis: This is the most common and contagious form of pink eye in children. In addition to swollen eyelids, viral pink eye causes redness, itching and watery eyes.
Allergic conjunctivitis: Unlike viral and bacterial pink eye, allergic conjunctivitis is caused by exposure to allergens like pollen or dust. As mentioned above, allergens trigger histamine, which can create itchy, swollen eyelids. Sneezing, runny nose and other allergy symptoms are also present.
Anaphylaxis: This is a serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening if not treated. Reactions typically include hives, trouble breathing or swallowing, and can be caused by certain foods, bee stings or other triggers.
Generalized edema: Also a symptom of serious conditions, generalized edema is characterized by fluid retention (swelling) in multiple body parts caused by liver or kidney failure. Swelling is usually first noticed in the feet, but can be present in the face after lying down for a period of time.
SEE RELATED: Common causes of a swollen eyelid
Treating swollen eyelids in toddlers and children
If your child is showing signs of any of the serious conditions mentioned above or if the eyelid swelling is severe, take them to a doctor as soon as possible.
For mildly swollen eyelids, gently cleaning the eyelids with a warm, wet washcloth and then applying a cool compress may provide some relief from swelling and discomfort.
Also, antihistamines may provide relief for itchy eyes from allergies or insect bites that could be causing eyelid swelling.
But all other causes listed above require medical attention, as they need prescription medication or other professional treatment.
When in doubt, contact an eye doctor immediately to determine the likely cause and best treatment for your child’s swollen eyelids.
READ MORE: Sore eyelids: How to relieve eyelid pain
Page updated October 2020