Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis (also called pink eye) is a common inflammation or infection of the front surface of the eye and the eyelids.
The conjunctiva 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 within the conjunctiva become inflamed (-itis) they become more visible, causing the whites of your eyes to appear reddish pink.
Here are the essential facts about conjunctivitis (pink eye) that you should know:
There are three main causes of conjunctivitis:
Viruses: The type of virus that causes conjunctivitis is similar to viruses that cause the common cold. This type of pink eye is very contagious, but usually will clear up on its own within several days without medical treatment. [Related: Read about “eye colds.”
Bacteria: Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria can cause serious damage to the eye if left untreated.
Allergies: Eye irritants such as pollen, dust and animal dander can cause allergic conjunctivitis among susceptible individuals. Allergic conjunctivitis may be seasonal (pollen) or flare up year-round (dust; pet dander). Here’s more about eye allergies and pink eye.
The terms conjunctivitis and pink eye often are used interchangeably, but many eye doctors use the term "pink eye" to refer only to viral conjunctivitis.
READ MORE about pink eye causes.
No surprise: the primary symptom of conjunctivitis (pink eye) is a reddish pink appearance to the white of the eye.
Other signs and symptoms of pink eye depend on the type of conjunctivitis you have:
Viral conjunctivitis. Watery, itchy eyes; sensitivity to light. One or both eyes can be affected. Highly contagious; can be spread by coughing and sneezing.
Bacterial conjunctivitis. A sticky, yellow or greenish-yellow eye discharge in the corner of the eye. In some cases, this discharge can be severe enough to cause the eyelids to be stuck together when you wake up. One or both eyes can be affected. Contagious (usually by direct contact with infected hands or items that have touched the eye).
Allergic conjunctivitis. Watery, burning, itchy eyes; often accompanied by stuffiness and a runny nose, and light sensitivity. Both eyes are affected. Not contagious.
Often it can be difficult to tell the type of conjunctivitis you have by symptoms alone (or if some other eye problems or underlying health conditions are causing your symptoms).
Conditions associated with conjunctivitis include other eye infections, dry eyes, and blepharitis. Also, bacterial conjunctivitis sometimes can lead to very serious eye problems such as a corneal ulcer, potentially causing permanent vision loss.
For these reasons, anytime you develop red, irritated eyes, schedule a comprehensive eye exam with your optometrist or ophthalmologist as soon as possible.
As you would expect, the treatment of pink eye depends on the type of conjunctivitis you have:
Viral conjunctivitis treatment: In most cases, viral conjunctivitis will run its course over a period of several days. Typically, no medical treatment is required for this type of pink eye.
Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment: Depending on the severity of pink eye caused by bacteria, your eye doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments for the treatment of bacterial conjunctivitis.
Allergic conjunctivitis treatment: Allergy medications often can help prevent or shorten bouts of allergic conjunctivitis. Sometimes these medications must be started before allergy season or allergy flare-ups begin. Ask your eye doctor for details.
Natural and home remedies for conjunctivitis
You can find plenty of natural treatments and home remedies for conjunctivitis on the internet. But these “solutions” typically are not as effective as treatments prescribed by your eye doctor.
And failing to get proper medical treatment for certain types of pink eye can have serious, vision-threatening consequences.
The time required to recover depends on the type of conjunctivitis you have, how severe it is, and when you begin treatment (if needed).
And if you choose to wear eyeglasses more frequently to reduce your risk of pink eye, consider high-index lenses and anti-reflective coating to make your glasses thinner, lighter and more attractive, and to eliminate distracting reflections in the lenses.
Also, photochromic lenses can reduce light sensitivity associated with pink eye and protect your eyes from harmful UV radiation and high-energy visible blue light both indoors and outside. Ask your eye care professional for details.
SEE RELATED: How long does pink eye last?
Now that you know the basics about viral pink eye and other forms of conjunctivitis, what can you do to protect yourself and your kids from getting pink eye?
Here are 10 ways to prevent getting conjunctivitis:
Never share personal items such as washcloths, hand towels or tissues.
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Avoid rubbing or touching your eyes.
Wash your hands frequently, especially when spending time at school or in other public places.
Keep a hand sanitizer nearby and use it frequently.
Frequently clean surfaces such as countertops, bathroom surfaces, faucet handles and shared phones with an antiseptic cleaner.
If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies, ask your doctor what can be done to minimize your symptoms before they begin.
If you wear contact lenses, follow your eye doctor's instructions for lens care and replacement, and use contact lens solutions properly or consider switching to daily disposable contact lenses.
When swimming, wear swim goggles to protect yourself from bacteria and other microorganisms in the water that can cause conjunctivitis. [Read more about swimming with pink eye.]
Before showering, remove your contact lenses to avoid trapping bacteria between your eyes and the lenses.
Despite these precautions, you or your child still may develop pink eye.
If your child has conjunctivitis, tell his or her teacher about the infection so extra steps can be taken to sanitize the classroom or day care center. Also, keep your child home until the contagious stage has passed. [Read more about pink eye in babies and conjunctivitis in children.]
Your eye doctor will let you know when you or your child can be around others without risk of spreading contagious pink eye — usually about three to five days after the diagnosis.
A red or pink eye sometimes can be a sign of a serious eye problem. For an accurate diagnosis and the most effective treatment, see your eye doctor if you develop a red, irritated eye.
SEE RELATED: Conjunctivitis FAQs
Page updated September 2020