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How to treat pink eye

When it comes to pink eye treatment, each of the types of conjunctivitis will require a slightly different approach. Whatever type you may be dealing with, pink eye treatment will almost certainly involve eye drops. The eye drops used for pink eye may be prescription, over the counter or a combination of both.

Viral conjunctivitis (pink eye) treatment

Since this highly contagious form of conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, there is no medical cure for pink eye — it usually goes away on its own. Pink eye typically lasts between one and three weeks.

Treatment for pink eye (sometimes called an eye cold) focuses on treating the symptoms, not the condition itself. Your eye doctor may choose to prescribe:

  • Antihistamine eye drops to relieve eye itchiness and irritation.

  • Vasoconstrictor eye drops to compress blood vessels in the eye, reducing redness.

  • Steroid eye drops in more severe cases, to control symptoms and speed up recovery.

Though pink eye does tend to resolve on its own, most people would prefer to avoid it altogether. Adhering to these guidelines can help you make sure you don't catch or spread pink eye.

Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment

Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious.

If treatment is recommended, it usually comes in the form of antibiotics. Antibiotics help reduce recovery time and the chances of any potential complications.

Treatment options often include:

  • Antibiotic eye drops or ointments that treat the bacterial infection directly.

  • Oral antibiotics (in the form of pills or liquid) to treat any underlying infections that may be causing conjunctivitis as a symptom.

  • Over-the-counter pink eye treatments like artificial tears to relieve eye dryness and discomfort.

If the initial treatment doesn’t work, a bacterial culture may be taken. A more specialized type of antibiotic may be needed to treat rare or unusual bacterial infections.

Allergic conjunctivitis treatment

This type of conjunctivitis is the result of underlying allergies. Treatment aims to control the itchiness and redness caused by environmental allergies.

Certain medications may be recommended, depending on the severity:

  • Oral allergy medications to treat the body’s overall reaction to allergens.

  • Antihistamine eye drops to relieve eye itchiness and irritation.

  • Vasoconstrictor eye drops to compress blood vessels in the eye, reducing redness.

  • Steroid eye drops to control symptoms and speed up recovery in more severe cases. Side effects from long-term use of steroid drops will need to be monitored.

SEE RELATED: Eye allergies vs. pink eye: What’s the difference?

Other forms of conjunctivitis treatment

Most cases of conjunctivitis have simple viral, bacterial or allergic causes. But other factors can cause conjunctivitis too, each with its own method of treatment.

Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) occurs most often in soft contact lens wearers, people with an artificial eye (ocular prosthesis), or patients with eye stitches or sutures after a procedure.

Treatment for GPC may include:

  • Removing the foreign body that has caused the abnormal immune response, including contact lenses, then keeping it out for at least a month.

  • Limiting how long soft contact lenses are worn after the condition resolves. An eye doctor may recommend switching to a different type of contact lens.

  • Using strict contact lens hygiene and changing lenses frequently.

  • Irrigating the eye's surface with a saline solution several times a day.

  • Steroid eye drops for severe cases.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like gonorrhea can also cause conjunctivitis, especially in newborn babies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gonococcal conjunctivitis in newborns is typically treated with IV antibiotics.

Talking to a doctor

If you think you or your child has conjunctivitis, don’t treat it yourself. Avoid trying any natural remedies for pink eye or conjunctivitis without first consulting an eye care professional.

While rare, eye redness and irritation can be signs of a more serious eye infection. These need to be ruled out before you start treatment.

An eye doctor can tell you exactly which form of conjunctivitis you have or if it's a different type of infection. Seeing an experienced eye care professional will ensure you are prescribed the best treatment for pink eye, bacterial conjunctivitis or any other eye infection.

LEARN MORE ABOUT CONJUNCTIVITIS in our frequently asked questions about pink eye

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