That goo, in most hospitals, is erythromycin ointment, and it serves as a simple, harmless, cost-effective means of preventing blindness. The blindness in question results from infection with 1 of 2 sexually transmitted infections, chlamydia and gonorrhea (often people get both at the same time). Both infections can progress rapidly in newborns’ eyes, damaging the clear part over the pupils (corneas) and causing irreversible harm. Men and women can harbor chlamydia and gonorrhea infections without any symptoms. Obstetricians test most women for these infections during their pregnancies and treat them if their tests come back positive, but mothers can still pick up those diseases after their tests come back, so to be safe we treat everyone.
Erythromycin ointment is close to 100% effective in preventing gonorrhea eye infections, but chlamydia infections can still pop up as long as 2 weeks after delivery. When this happens, only oral antibiotics provide effective treatment. Because of the danger from chlamydia, most pediatricians test newborns’ eyes for the disease before prescribing antibiotics. Other eye infections may also threaten a baby’s vision, including herpes simplex virus and Staphylococcus aureus. There are several other reasons a baby might develop eye discharge in the first few weeks of life, including a rare allergic reaction to erythromycin.
When to Call the Doctor
If your newborn develops thick, yellow discharge from one or both eyes, make sure a doctor sees him quickly.