Ophthalmia neonatorum


Ophthalmia Neonatorum (ON) (conjunctivitis of the newborn) occurs within the first month of life. It is a bacterial, chlamydial or viral infection acquired during passage through an infected birth canal. Since April 2010 it is no longer a notifiable disease in the UK.

Historically, the commonest agent was Neisseria gonorrhoeae (also known as ‘gonococcus’, and a cause of sexually-transmitted disease). The use of silver nitrate drops as prophylaxis was introduced in the C19, although abandoned in the UK in the 1950s. The USA continues to recommend universal ocular prophylaxis based on the relatively high prevalence of gonococcal infection in the general population, and many other countries have also continued with prophylaxis. 

Gonococcal ON develops in approx. 30-50% of newborns exposed to gonococcal infection during delivery

Nowadays a more usual agent, also sexually acquired by the mother, is Chlamydia trachomatis. Babies born to women with untreated chlamydial infection at delivery have a 30-50% chance of developing ON. Chlamydia trachomatis can also colonise the respiratory tract. This causes pneumonitis 1-3 months after birth, which in 50% of cases may be preceded by conjunctivitis.

The incubation period is usually as follows:

  • C. trachomatis: 5-14 days
  • N. gonorrhoeae: 3-5 days

The prevalence of ON differs in different parts of the world and is dependent mainly upon socio-economic conditions, level of knowledge about general health, standard of maternal healthcare as well as the type of prophylactic programme used. UK incidence is:

  • C. trachomatis: 6.9 per 100,000 live births
  • N. gonorrhoeae: 3.7 per 100,000 live births

In low income countries, very much higher incidences have been reported

Other bacteria that cause ON include Haemophilus, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas species

Viral infections (less common) can be caused by herpes simplex virus, adenovirus or enterovirus

The neonatal conjunctiva is particularly vulnerable to infection because of the lack of immunity and the absence of local lymphoid tissue at birth

Predisposing factors

Infection of the maternal birth canal as the result of sexually-transmitted disease
This infection may be asymptomatic, especially in the case of C. trachomatis

Symptoms of ophthalmia neonatorum

(Usually described by mother):

  • redness
  • discharge (may be profuse)
  • swelling of lids (may be severe)
  • symptoms usually bilateral

Signs of ophthalmia neonatorum


  • oedema (may impede examination of ocular surfaces)

Conjunctival features

  • mucopurulent conjunctivitis – in C. trachomatis infection discharge is initially watery, progressing to a copious purulent discharge. 
  • Danger of infection of clinician when prising open lids (use of sterile disposable gloves recommended during examination)
  • NB: in neonatal C. trachomatis infection there are no follicles as in adults, because of the neonate’s lack of lymphoid tissue
  • conjunctival oedema (‘chemosis’)
  • conjunctival pseudomembrane in severe cases

Corneal features

  • cornea can be involved, especially in N. gonorrhoeae infection. This organism can pass through intact corneal epithelium. Perforation may result
  • epithelial oedema with superficial keratitis and possible ulceration
  • signs usually bilateral; may be asymmetrical

Differential diagnosis

  • By definition, conjunctivitis occurring within the first month of life is ON
  • Congenital obstruction of the nasolacrimal duct(s) is often associated with epiphora, discharge and recurrent conjunctivitis (see Clinical Management Guideline on Nasolacrimal Duct Obstruction)

Management by optometrist

Practitioners should work within their scope of practice, and where necessary seek further advice or refer the patient elsewhere

GRADE* Level of evidence and strength of recommendation always relates to the statement(s) immediately above

Non pharmacological




Management category

A1: emergency (same day) referral to ophthalmologist; no intervention ON may result in a severe and progressive conjunctivitis with corneal complications and be associated with potentially serious systemic infection

Possible management in secondary care or local primary/community pathways where available

Additional guidance may be available


  • conjunctival cultures for bacteria (N. gonorrhoeae requires special media)
  • conjunctival scraping for Gram stain (bacteria) and Giemsa stain (for C. trachomatis)
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)


Bacterial conjunctivitis

  • systemic penicillin G or a cephalosporin for N. gonorrhoeae
  • topical erythromycin sometimes given in addition
  • other topical antibiotics, including azithromycin or chloramphenicol
  • frequent irrigation until discharge ceases

Chlamydial conjunctivitis

Herpetic conjunctivitis

  • systemic and topical antiviral, e.g. aciclovir

Evidence base

*GRADE: Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and
Evaluation (see www.gradeworkinggroup.org)

Sources of evidence

Darling EK, McDonald H A meta-analysis of the efficacy of ocular prophylactic agents used for the prevention of gonococcal and chlamydial ophthalmia neonatorum J Midwifery Womens Health 2010;55:319-27

Kapoor VS, Evans JR, Vedula SS. Interventions for preventing ophthalmia neonatorum. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2020, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD001862

Malik ANJ, Gilbert C. Cochrane corner: interventions for preventing ophthalmia neonatorum. Eye (Lond). 2022;36(2):356-357

Manasseh GSL, Amarakoon S, Photiou V, Arruti N, Borman AD. Approach to conjunctivitis in newborns. BMJ. 2022;376:e068023.

Matejcek A, Goldman RD Treatment and prevention of ophthalmia neonatorum. Can Fam Physician. 2013;59(11):1187-90

McAnena L, Knowles SJ, Curry A, Cassidy L. Prevalence of gonococcal conjunctivitis in adults and neonates. Eye (Lond). 2015;29(7):875-80

Moore DL, MacDonald NE; Canadian Paediatric Society, Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee. Preventing ophthalmia neonatorum. Can J Infect Dis Med Microbiol. 2015;26(3):122-5


What is Ophthalmia Neonatorum?

The definition of Ophthalmia Neonatorum (conjunctivitis of the newborn) is an eye infection that occurs within the first 30 days of life. It is caught during birth by contact with the mother’s birth canal that is infected with a sexually-transmitted disease. The infection may be bacterial, chlamydial or viral. Historically, gonorrhoea was the usual cause, but chlamydial infection is now more common. Globally, the prevalence of this infection varies widely according to prevailing socio-economic conditions, health education and maternal healthcare.

The baby’s eyes are red, the eyelids and the whites of the eyes are swollen and there is watering or a discharge. Usually both eyes are affected, but one may be worse than the other. One of the dangers of infection caused by the organism that causes gonorrhoea is that it may affect the cornea also. 

How is Ophthalmia Neonatorum managed?

Early diagnosis is important and for this reason, the optometrist is advised to refer all cases immediately to the on-call ophthalmologist. Swabs will be taken for culture and treatment started without delay, using antibiotics given by mouth or by injection or into a vein, and in eye drop form.

Opthalmia neonatorum
Version 12                                                                                                                       
Date of search 18.05.22
Date of revision 29.05.22
Date of publication 20.12.22
Date for review 17.05.24

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