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Pink eye (conjunctivitis)

Close-up of a woman with conjunctivitis (pink eye).

Overview

Pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, is a common inflammation or infection of the eyes. It affects the conjunctiva, which is a very thin, clear membrane that covers the white of the eye (sclera) and the inner surface of the eyelids. When tiny blood vessels in the conjunctiva are inflamed, they become more visible. This is what causes the whites of your eyes to appear reddish pink.

There are three main types of conjunctivitis: viral, bacterial and allergic. It is very common for people to use the terms conjunctivitis and pink eye to mean the same thing. But eye doctors usually only use the term pink eye to refer to viral conjunctivitis.

Anyone can get pink eye. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious and spread easily when groups of people are in close contact. Preschoolers, schoolchildren, college students, teachers and daycare workers are especially at risk. Contagious conjunctivitis can spread very quickly in classroom environments.

Pink eye symptoms

The primary symptom of pink eye is a reddish-pink appearance to the white of the eye. Other common symptoms of conjunctivitis include: 

The different types of conjunctivitis can cause slightly different symptoms. Some types may also have symptoms that are more severe.

Types of pink eye - viral, bacterial, allergic

The three primary types of conjunctivitis are viral, bacterial and allergic. Viral conjunctivitis is the most contagious. When doctors say “pink eye,” they are talking about viral conjunctivitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis is also highly contagious. It tends to have more severe symptoms. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious. Its symptoms are similar to those caused by eye allergies.

  • Viral conjunctivitis – Watery, itchy eyes; thin, watery discharge; sensitivity to light. Can affect one or both eyes. 

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis – Watery, itchy eyes; a burning or stinging feeling; light sensitivity. Sticky, yellow or greenish-yellow eye discharge that may cause the eyelids to be stuck together when waking up and can cause blurry vision. Can affect one or both eyes. 

  • Allergic conjunctivitis – Watery, burning, itchy eyes; puffy eyelids; light sensitivity. Usually affects both eyes and is accompanied by stuffiness and a runny nose.

It can be difficult to tell the type of conjunctivitis you have by symptoms alone. There are also many other eye conditions with symptoms that can look a lot like conjunctivitis. These include other eye infections, dry eyes, and blepharitis

Any time you develop red, irritated eyes, schedule an eye exam with your optometrist or ophthalmologist as soon as possible.

READ MORE about chronic pink eye and pink eye discomfort.

What causes pink eye?

There are three main causes of pink eye / conjunctivitis:

  • Viruses – The types of viruses that cause pink eye are similar to viruses that cause the common cold. Pink eye is very contagious and can be spread just like a cold: coughing, sneezing and not washing hands. 

  • Bacteria – Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria is also highly contagious. It is usually spread by direct contact, like touching an infected item and then rubbing your eyes. 

  • Allergies – Eye irritants such as pollen, dust and animal dander can cause allergic conjunctivitis for many people. It may be seasonal (pollen), or it can flare up year round (dust; pet dander). Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious. 

Other causes of conjunctivitis can include: 

  • Irritation from smoke, air pollution, dust and other irritants

  • Chemical splashes and fumes

  • Fungal infections

  • Foreign objects in the eye, including dirt, sand or an eyelash

  • Wearing contact lenses too long 

  • Blocked tear ducts

  • Parasites  

RELATED READING: “Eye colds” and the difference between eye allergies and pink eye

How do you treat pink eye?

The treatment for pink eye (conjunctivitis) depends on the type. Most cases are not serious and will clear up on their own without medical attention. Usually, pink eye treatment and other conjunctivitis treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. 

But it is important to remember that it is very difficult to self-diagnose your type of conjunctivitis. See an eye doctor right away if eye redness and other symptoms get worse or do not start to clear up in about a week.  

Viral conjunctivitis treatment

Viral conjunctivitis will usually run its course over a period of several days without medical treatment. Since it is caused by a virus, pink eye can’t be treated with antibiotics. Fortunately, there are many over-the-counter and home remedies that can help relieve symptoms until the virus clears up. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment

Bacterial conjunctivitis usually clears up on its own in a week or two, but it may require  prescription antibiotic eye drops or ointment. In severe cases, it can lead to vision loss if left untreated. Always see an eye doctor as soon as possible if an eye infection does not begin to get better after a week.

Allergic conjunctivitis treatment

Allergy medications can help prevent or shorten instances of allergic conjunctivitis. Start these medications before allergy season or allergy flare-ups begin. Over-the-counter lubricating eye drops and antihistamine eye drops can also help with symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis. Always talk to your eye doctor first to make sure you choose the appropriate eye drops.

Natural & home remedies for pink eye

You can find plenty of home remedies and natural treatments for pink eye on the internet. But these “solutions'' are not always safe, and they are not as effective as treatments recommended by your eye doctor. Some home remedies can help ease the symptoms of conjunctivitis, but many natural treatments could also be dangerous without a doctor’s guidance. 

Never use natural pink eye treatments on yourself or your child without talking to your eye doctor first. Certain types of conjunctivitis can have serious consequences, including vision loss. It’s important to see an eye doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and the proper treatment.

Pink eye recovery

Recovery time for conjunctivitis can range from a few days to a few weeks. It depends on the type you have, how severe it is and when you begin treatment (if needed).

If you wear contact lenses, remove your lenses and wear only your eyeglasses until your eye doctor has had a chance to examine your eyes. Wearing contact lenses can increase the risk of pink eye and can also make symptoms worse.

If you choose to wear eyeglasses more to reduce your risk of pink eye, consider photochromic lenses. They can help to reduce the light sensitivity associated with pink eye. Photochromic lenses can also help to protect your eyes from UV radiation and blue light, both indoors and outside. 

How to prevent pink eye

Prevention of pink eye is possible and comes down to practicing basic hygiene.

Here are 10 ways to avoid contracting and spreading conjunctivitis:

  1. Never share personal items such as washcloths, hand towels or tissues.

  2. Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

  3. Avoid rubbing or touching your eyes.

  4. Wash your hands frequently, especially when spending time at school or in other public places.

  5. Keep a hand sanitizer nearby and use it often.

  6. Use a disinfectant to clean countertops, bathroom surfaces, faucet handles and shared phones. Clean them frequently.

  7. If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies, ask your doctor how to minimize your symptoms before they begin.

  8. If you wear contact lenses, follow your eye doctor's instructions for lens care and replacement. Use contact lens solutions or consider switching to daily disposable contact lenses.

  9. Wear swim goggles while swimming to protect yourself from bacteria and other microorganisms in the water. Avoid swimming if you already have pink eye.

  10. Before showering, remove your contact lenses to avoid trapping bacteria between your eyes and the lenses.

Wash your hands often, to keep viral pink eye from spreading.

Despite these precautions, you or your child still may develop pink eye.

Tell your child's teacher about the pink eye infection so extra steps can be taken to sanitize the classroom or daycare center. Also, keep your child home until the contagious stage has passed. Wash your hands and your child’s hands often to help keep conjunctivitis from spreading.

Your eye doctor will let you know when you or your child is no longer considered contagious. A child can usually go back to school or daycare about a week after the conjunctivitis diagnosis.

RELATED READING: Pink eye in infants and Pink eye in children

When to see an eye doctor for pink eye

Some types of conjunctivitis can be very serious if not treated. The symptoms of conjunctivitis can also look nearly identical to symptoms of other eye conditions. 

A red or pink eye can sometimes be a sign of a serious eye problem. For an accurate diagnosis, see your eye doctor if you or your child develops a red, irritated eye or other symptoms of an eye infection.

See more pink eye articles

Types of conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis

Chronic conjunctivitis

Pink eye pain

Pink eye treatment

Eye drops for pink eye

Pink eye medication

Can you naturally cure pink eye?

Treating pink eye at home

Avoid swimming with pink eye

Treating pink eye in babies

Pink eye in children

FAQ about pink eye & conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis (pink eye). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 2019.

What is conjunctivitis? Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). Accessed April 2021.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis). Mayo Clinic. June 2020.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis). Cleveland Clinic. April 2020.

Conjunctivitis (pink eye). American Optometric Association. Accessed April 2021. 

Pinkeye (conjunctivitis). KidsHealth.org. June 2017.

Patient education: Conjunctivitis (pink eye) (beyond the basics). UpToDate. August 2020.

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