Pink eye is a common eye infection that causes inflammation of the tissues lining the eyelid (conjunctiva). It’s caused by allergens, irritants, bacteria and viruses, such as coronaviruses that cause the common cold or COVID-19. Treatment depends on the specific cause and includes eye drops, ointments, pills, water flushes and comfort care.
Pink eye is an inflammation (redness) of the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that lines the inside surface of your eyelid and outer coating of your eye. This tissue helps keep your eyelid and eyeball moist. You can get pink eye from viruses, bacteria, allergens and other causes.
The medical name for pink eye is conjunctivitis. You can get pink eye in one or both eyes.
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In an eye with pink eye, the white part looks light pink to reddish and your eyelids are puffy or droopy. You might see fluid (discharge) coming from the infected eye or crusting on your eyelashes and eyelids.
Both pink eye and a stye share some common symptoms, including redness, sensitivity to light and crusting along your eyelids. But these two conditions are different and have different causes.
A stye is a red, painful bump that forms either on or inside your eyelid near the edge of your eyelashes. Pink eye is an inflammation of the lining of the inside surface of your eyelid and outer coating of your eye. Pink eye doesn’t cause bumps in your eyelid or around your eye.
Styes are caused by an infection in the oil glands on your eyelid. Pink eye is caused by viruses, bacteria, allergens and other causes different than what causes styes.
Pink eye is one of the most common eye infections in children and adults. There are about 6 million cases of pink eye in the U.S. each year.
Symptoms of pink eye include:
Only your healthcare provider can diagnose you for sure, but there are a few symptoms to look for that are characteristic of pink eye. You probably have pink eye if the white of your eye is light pink to reddish all over and it:
The pink or reddish color of pink eye happens when the blood vessels in the membrane covering your eye (the conjunctiva) gets inflamed, making them more visible. Causes of inflammation include:
Pink eye that happens due to bacteria or viruses is highly contagious (very easily spread from person to person). This is because you can spread pink eye before you know you have it. We also all touch our faces and eyes much more than we think.
Pink eye caused by allergies isn’t contagious.
If you get pink eye from bacteria, you’re contagious while you have symptoms or until about 24 to 48 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
If you get pink eye from a virus, you’re contagious for as long as you have symptoms (usually several days). You can also spread pink eye before you notice any symptoms.
Pink eye spreads:
Your ophthalmologist or pediatrician will examine your eyes or your child’s eyes. Your provider can usually diagnose pink eye based on symptoms and health history. You may do an acuity test (eye chart test) to check your vision.
Tell your healthcare provider if you have:
While not common, if your provider thinks bacteria is causing pink eye or if the infection is severe, they may want to do testing. They’ll use a soft-tipped stick (swab) to collect secretions from around your eye, then send the sample to a lab. The lab will run tests to find out what’s causing your pink eye.
Although the symptoms of pink eye can be the same regardless of cause, your healthcare provider uses a few signs to help determine if pink eye is bacterial or viral:
Treatment of pink eye depends on whether it’s caused by bacteria, a virus, an allergen or something else.
If bacteria are causing your pink eye, your provider will give you a prescription for antibiotics (eye drops, ointments or pills). If it’s tricky to put ointment in your eye or your child’s eye, don’t worry. If the ointment gets as far as the eyelashes, it will most likely melt into the eye.
Pink eye caused by a virus doesn’t need treatment unless it’s caused by herpes simplex virus, varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox/shingles) or a sexually transmitted infection. These are serious infections that require antiviral medications. If not treated, they could scar your eye or cause vision loss.
Antibiotics can’t treat pink eye caused by a virus.
If something gets into your eyes and irritates them, rinse your eyes with a gentle stream of warm water for five minutes. Avoid further exposure to the irritating substances.
Your eyes should begin to improve within four hours after rinsing them. If they don’t, call your healthcare provider. If the substance in your eyes is a strong acid or alkaline chemical (such as drain cleaner), rinse your eyes with water and call your healthcare provider immediately.
Allergic conjunctivitis is treated with prescription or over-the-counter eye drops. These contain either antihistamines to control allergic reactions or anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids or decongestants.
You can relieve your symptoms temporarily by applying a cold compress to your closed eyes. You can prevent this kind of pink eye by avoiding the allergens that cause your symptoms or taking over-the-counter allergy medicines.
Pink eye caused by STIs are uncommon but can be serious. Like other causes of pink eye, bacterial pink eye is treated with antibiotics and viral pink eye is treated with antiviral medications.
Newborn babies can develop a serious type of pink eye that can cause vision loss. If you’re pregnant and living with an STI, your baby can pick up the bacteria during delivery. It’s standard practice in U.S. hospitals is to apply an antibiotic ointment to every newborn’s eyes to help prevent infection.
If you have pink eye caused by an autoimmune disease, treating the underlying illness will also treat your pink eye. Ask your healthcare provider how to manage your symptoms until your eye feels better.
Mild cases of pink eye usually go away on their own within a few days to a few weeks. Most causes of viral conjunctivitis don’t need treatment. Antibiotics for bacterial conjunctivitis reduce the length of your symptoms and the amount of time you’re contagious.
You can only get rid of pink eye faster if it’s caused by bacteria. Antibiotic eye drops can shorten the amount of time you have bacterial pink eye. They won’t work on other types of pink eye.
If you or your child has bacterial or viral pink eye, your healthcare provider may recommend staying home from work, school or daycare until you’re no longer contagious. Check with your healthcare provider to find out how long that may be. You’re usually less likely to spread the infection if you’ve been on antibiotics for 24 hours or no longer have symptoms.
Following good general hygiene and eye care practices can also help prevent the spread of pink eye.
Though highly contagious, pink eye is usually not a serious condition. Most cases of mild to moderate pink eye clear on their own without treatment.
Treatment is often needed if pink eye is severe. It can shorten the amount of time you feel symptoms and can spread the condition to others.
If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, it should improve within a week. Take any medicine as instructed by your healthcare provider, even if your symptoms go away.
Viral conjunctivitis usually lasts from four to seven days. It can take up to 14 days to fully resolve.
You or your child can usually go back to daycare, school or work as soon as your symptoms go away. This might be as soon as 24 hours after antibiotic treatment for a bacterial infection and between two and seven days after viral infection.
Your eyes shouldn’t have any:
Be sure to check with your healthcare provider about when it’s safe to return. If an allergy or something else that’s not contagious caused your pink eye, you don’t need to stay home.
Since many cases of pink eye are mild, you’re usually able to relieve symptoms at home until it gets better. Using nonprescription “artificial tears” eye drops may help relieve itching and burning from irritating substances.
Note: Other types of eye drops may irritate the eyes, so don’t use them. Avoid eye drops marketed to treat redness. Don’t use the same bottle of drops in the other eye if it’s not infected.
Other things you can do to relieve the symptoms of pink eye include:
Pink eye can come back, especially if you have allergy-related pink eye. Every time you’re in contact with the allergen (a substance that triggers allergies), your eyes may react.
If you have bacterial or viral pink eye, you can also accidentally reinfect yourself. To avoid coming down with another case of contagious pink eye:
You don’t necessarily need to see a doctor for pink eye. Most of the time, you can treat the symptoms at home until it goes away on its own. But you should never hesitate to call your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.
Some symptoms can be a sign of a serious problem, such as an ulcer, which can result in permanent vision loss. Call your healthcare provider or seek medical care right away if you experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Pink eye usually isn’t serious. It’s highly treatable and preventable. Unless your case of pink is severe, pink eye can heal on its own without treatment. The best thing you can do is take the necessary steps to avoid spreading pink eye to others or getting a repeat case of it. If you have any questions or concerns, always call your healthcare provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/22/2022.
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