Fact of the day: conjunctivitis and breast milk

It happened for the first time in my life. I woke up two days ago with really red eyes, but I thought it was just allergies. I had forgotten to take my eye makeup off the night before and figured my eyes were just bothered. I had also started using a new brand of makeup remover that I noticed was leaving my face really dry. Then yesterday I woke up to completely bloodshot, watery, goopy eyes. UGH!!!!!! It looked like an allergic conjunctivitis. I did what any nursing mom probably would do… I put some breast milk on it. If you’ve been around the mothering world long enough, you’ve probably anecdotally heard of putting breast milk in the eye for anything from clogged tear ducts to pink eye. So I figured I’d go there first. It definitely took the itch away, but after an hour of really no relief I did what everyone really should do: sought professional help at the doctors. The doctor said it was most likely an infection from the eye make up since it was affecting both eyes. A shot of cortisone in the butt and a box of eye drops later, today my eyes are almost back to normal. But now I was curious. The old wives tale says breast milk is cure all, but what are the facts? For your reading pleasure, here’s the current research.

The horrifying selfie I took to send to my mother from the urgent care center
Me after 24 hours of antibiotic eye drops. Almost completely better. That mascara and eye liner has been thrown out and no contacts or eye make up for a week

The most common suggested “medicinal” use of breastmilk is to treat children’s eye infections. This has been circulating since the 18th century quote, where it was said the milk “is an emollient and cool, and cureth Red Eye immediately.” Studies show that most conditions that cause goopy eyes in babies (blocked ducts and the common cold) will resolve on their own without any treatment. For bacteria caused pink eye, evidence shows that mother’s milk is unlikely to be effective against the bacteria that cause this infection. And certainly, in a newborn, genuine pink eyes need to be evaluated by a physician because there is the potential for long term irreversible eye damage.

In 2007, Verd published an account of his clinic’s switch from treating infants with blocked tear ducts with mother’s milk drops instead of antibiotic eye drops. The study was retrospective and descriptive rather than quantitative, but it suggested that routinely using mother’s milk is probably safe. Blocked tear ducts actually get better without any intervention at all. But if you want to do something, using mother’s milk seems safe and won’t do any harm. Other than trying to hold your wiggly baby down to actually get it in the eye of a moving target.

In 2012, Baynham and colleagues published a letter in the British Journal of Opthalmology, looking at the in vitro inhibitory effects of donated fresh breast milk against common ocular pathogens. (I.e., they squirted milk into petri dishes of eye germs to see what would happen.) They found that 100% of their donated milk samples already contained bacteria (including, in some cases, bacteria that could cause human disease). Though there was some inhibition of bacterial growth against some strains of bacteria, the inhibition wasn’t strong. The conclusion: “… human milk is unlikely to be effective against the most common causes of paediatric conjunctivitis.” Interestingly enough, breast milk is most effective against the bacteria that causes gonorrhea, which is the same bacteria that causes most serious neonatal eye infections, world-wide. It wasn’t as powerful as an antibiotic, but for resource-poor communities in the developing world, human milk may be better than nothing.

Another in vitro (in the lab Petri dish) study looking at the effects of human milk against bacteria by Ibhanesebhor in 1996 found that while colostrum had some inhibitory effects, mature milk did not—presumably because colostrum has a much higher concentration of antibodies. While colostrum was effective against some bacteria, and it wasn’t nearly as effective as an antibiotic.

Some moms suggest using breastmilk to treat ear infections. Most ear infections are middle ear infections, that is to say they are behind the ear drum. Breastmilk in the ear canal can not cross the ear drum to reach the bacteria. Breastmilk in the ear canal may be effective against bacteria if the infection is in the outer ear canal such as a “swimmer’s ear” infection. However the majority of inner ear infections clear up on their own. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting 48-72 hours after diagnosis before trying antibiotics. Warmth is soothing to an inflamed ear so mothers who have tried putting breastmilk in baby’s ear probably found that it gave some relief. Warm compresses, warmed oil drops, or ear drops would also have the same effect.

Infant atopic eczema is a skin condition that affects about 50% of infants in the first years of their lives. Mothers often try breastmilk as a treatment. One study looked at the short-term efficacy of breastmilk versus hydrocortisone 1% ointment in infants with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (AD). There were no significant differences between these two groups at days 0, 7, 14, and 21, and the interventions of both groups were found to have the same effects. As breastmilk and the hydrocortisone 1% ointment provided the same results in the healing of AD, the study’s authors support using breastmilk to treat infant atopic eczema because of low cost and accessibility.

These studies were found on the Le Leche League website. So the take away is, squirting breast milk in your baby’s eyes or ears really won’t do anything but distract you both temporarily, while lathering your baby’s skin in breast milk can actually make a difference.