Fact Check: Eye Ointment For Newborns Is NOT 'Pointless,' NOT Associated With Serious Risks

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fact Check: Eye Ointment For Newborns Is NOT 'Pointless,' NOT Associated With Serious Risks Many Benefits

Is the eye ointment administered to newborns and commonly used to prevent a condition caused by the transmission of gonorrhea "pointless" and associated with serious health risks? No, that's not true: The erythromycin eye ointment provided to most babies after birth is standard neonatal care to prevent bacterial infections and has not been proven to have significant side effects in newborns.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) on February 15, 2022. The caption of the post reads:

Do you know why eye ointment (Erythromycin) is given at birth?
It is offered because there were babies being born with ophthalmia neonatorum, which is a strain of pink eye caused by ghonnorea and chlamydia.

Pink eye.... we're pre-treating every single baby for pink eye.

If mom doesn't have either of those, the ointment is basically pointless and nonbeneficial with potential of dangerous side effects.

Risks of erythromycin: eye irritation, CLOGGED TEAR DUCTS, prevents oxygen from getting to baby's eyes, JAUNDICE, chemical conjunctivitis (pink eye), blurred vision that may interfere with bonding (super important in the first moments/hours), contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, has a 20% failure rate, possibility of allergic reaction.
The antibiotics in the ointment enter the bloodstream through the eye - the potential for diaper rash, thrush, and digestive problems are all present when this happens.
You can refuse it!

This is what the post looked like on Facebook on February 21, 2022:

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Mon Feb 21 17:32 2022 UTC)

The administration of eye ointment, specifically erythromycin, to newborns is standard practice to prevent bacterial eye infections in general. It is mostly administered to prevent gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum (GON). Gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum is an infection that can develop when newborns come in contact with genital secretions from an individual with genital gonorrhea. This contact usually happens during maternal transmission in childbirth. However, bacteria from non-sexually transmitted infections and gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum alike can cause serious side effects to newborns' eyes including pink eye and in severe cases can lead to permanent blindness.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which is an independent panel of experts in preventive medicine, has recommended the use of erythromycin eye ointment for the preventive treatment of gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum. Although parents can refuse to have the ointment administered, experts strongly recommend that newborns receive the treatment. Not only is the ointment effective in preventing bacterial infections, but it is still preventive even with the development of screening tests because not all pregnant women are screened for gonorrhea before childbirth.

In an email to Lead Stories sent on February 21, 2022, the USPSTF told us:

We note the concern about providing this medication to babies who are not at risk for GON, but given the devastating health consequences of GON in babies and that women might not know they have gonorrhea, when making it's recommendation, the Task Force found that the benefits of giving babies antibiotic ointment to prevent GON outweigh the harms.

This stance is reflected in the USPSTF recommendation's "Rationale" section, which states that there is convincing evidence that the erythromycin eye ointment used to prevent gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum is not associated with serious harm. There is a risk of a newborn developing pink eye from the administration of the ointment, but it is rare.


  • 2022-02-22T17:09:40Z 2022-02-22T17:09:40Z
    Adds statement from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

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  Lead Stories Staff

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