How to Treat and Prevent Pink Eye

A woman holds a tissue to her irritated eye.

What Is Pinkeye?

Pinkeye is a common name for conjunctivitis, a condition that causes inflammation and redness of the membranes inside the eyes. Viruses, bacterial infections, allergies, or chemical agents can cause pinkeye. Sometimes it is the result of a chronic medical condition. Most commonly, a virus or bacterial infection causes pinkeye.

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Is Pinkeye Contagious?

Infectious forms of pinkeye are highly contagious. It is easily transmitted among humans by contact with an infected person or objects that are shared with an infected person. Coughing and sneezing are other possible routes of spread. Children with pinkeye will need to stay home from school or daycare for a short period of time. Pinkeye due to allergic reactions or contact with chemical agents is not contagious.

Eye redness is a symptom of pinkeye.

Symptom: Eye Redness

The hallmark sign of pinkeye is redness of the eye. Pinkeye is very common and rarely causes long-term problems or vision damage.

A young girl with a swollen eyelid from pinkeye

Symptom: Swollen, Red Eyelids

Infections that cause of pinkeye usually start first in one eye and then spread to the other eye within a few days. Allergic reactions usually involve both eyes right away. Swelling of the eyelids may be seen; this is particularly common with bacterial infections and allergies.

A close-up view of heavy inflammation in the eye.

Symptom: Lots of Tearing

Increased production of tears (watery eyes) is common in viral and allergic pinkeye.

Eye irritation caused by viral conjunctivitis.

Symptom: Itchy or Burning Eyes

Other symptoms of pinkeye include itching and burning of the eyes.

Acute bacterial conjunctivitis with pus around the eye

Symptom: Drainage From the Eyes

Watery eyes are common with viral and allergic pinkeye. When the eye drains greenish-yellow fluid as seen here, this is most likely to be caused by bacterial pinkeye.

Crusts on a swollen eyelid from a viral infection.

Symptom: Crusty Eyelids

Sometimes people with pinkeye awaken in the morning with their eyes "stuck shut" due to discharge that is produced during sleep.

Sunspots from bright light filter through the trees.

Symptom: Sensitivity to Light

Mild sensitivity to light can accompany pinkeye. But severe pain, severe sensitivity to light, and vision changes are all signs that the infection may have spread beyond the conjunctiva. These symptoms should prompt a visit to the doctor for an examination.

A young man rubs his irritated eye.

Symptom: Foreign Feeling in the Eye

Sometimes pinkeye can feel like there is something in your eye, or a feeling of sand in the eye. Children with pinkeye may describe their symptoms this way.

An optometrist examines a patient.

Diagnosing Pinkeye

Pinkeye can often be diagnosed simply by observing the typical symptoms and signs. In some cases, the doctor will examine the eye with a slit lamp instrument, as shown here. Samples of discharge from the eyes may be taken and sent to a lab to identify the infection in some cases.

A boy with conjunctivitis takes an eye exam.

When Pinkeye Means Something More

Chronic pinkeye can signal the presence of an underlying medical disease. These are most commonly rheumatic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Pinkeye can also be associated with Kawasaki disease (an uncommon disease that causes fever in infants and young children) and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Close-up of a man applying drops to the eye.

Pinkeye Treatment

Antibiotics, in the form of eyedrops, pills, or ointment, are the recommended treatment for bacterial pinkeye. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections and there is no specific treatment. The viral infection typically lasts for four to seven days. Treatment of allergies can help improve symptoms of allergic pinkeye. Chemical pinkeye should be treated immediately by a doctor after washing the affected eye for five minutes.

A woman washes around her eye with a washcloth.

Relieving Symptoms

Cold or warm compresses applied to the eyes can help clear the discharge associated with viral or bacterial pinkeye. Use a different washcloth for each eye, and use clean washcloths each time you wash. Wiping from the inside to the outside of the eye area is the best way to clean the eyes.

A doctor checks a young male patient's eye.

How Long Is Pinkeye Contagious?

If symptoms have improved, you can usually go back to school or work 24 hours after starting antibiotics for bacterial pinkeye. Viral pinkeye is different, and you can spread the condition as long as you have symptoms. Your doctor can tell you when it is safe to return to work or school.

A woman washes her hands with soap and water.

Pinkeye Prevention

Always wash your hands well and frequently if you or your child has pinkeye, and try not to touch the eye area. Wash hands after applying medications to the eyes. To avoid spreading the infection, do not share towels or other products, change linens and towels daily, disinfect surfaces like countertops and doorknobs, and throw away tissues after each use. If you use makeup, throw away any makeup that you used on the eye area while infected.

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REFERENCES:

  • Medscape: "Viral Conjunctivits"
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