How is pink eye (conjunctivitis) treated?

Treatment of pink eye depends on its cause.

Pink eye caused by bacteria

If your pink eye is caused by bacteria, you’ll likely be given a prescription for antibiotics (eye drops, ointments or pills). You may find it difficult to apply ointment to your or your child’s eye. Don’t worry. If the ointment gets as far as the eyelashes, it will most likely melt and enter the eye.

The infection should improve within a week. Take the medicine as instructed by your healthcare provider, even if the symptoms go away.

Pink eye caused by viruses

Antibiotics can’t treat pink eye caused by a virus. Just as a cold must run its course, so must this form of pink eye, which will last from four to seven days but can take up to 14 days to fully resolve. In the meantime, apply a cold compress or use artificial tears several times a day to help relieve symptoms.

Pink eye caused by irritating substances

If your eyes are irritated after a substance gets into 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 doctor. 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 doctor immediately.

Pink eye caused by allergies

Allergic conjunctivitis is treated with prescription or over-the-counter eye drops that contain either antihistamines to control allergic reactions or anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids or decongestants. You can relieve symptoms temporarily – by applying a cold compress on closed eyes – or permanently by avoiding the allergens that are causing your symptoms.

Other causes of pink eye

Less commonly, bacteria that causes sexually transmitted infections can cause pink eye. This route of infection occurs from hand-to-eye transmission of genital fluids. If you think you were exposed to a sexually transmitted infection, tell your doctor. Bacterial pink eye is treated with antibiotics; viral pink eye is treated with antiviral medications.

Newborn babies can develop a serious type of conjunctivitis if they are delivered vaginally by women with sexually transmitted infections. The bacteria are picked up by the newborn during the delivery process. The bacteria can cause loss of sight. It’s standard practice in U.S. hospitals is to apply an antibiotic ointment to the eyes of every newborn to help prevent this eye infection.

Autoimmune conditions — diseases in which your own immune system overreacts — are also a rare cause of pink eye. If you have a family history or other reason to suspect an autoimmune disease, discuss this with your doctor.

Can pink eye (conjunctivitis) clear on its own without treatment?

Mild cases of pink eye usually don’t require treatment and clear on their own within a few days (for bacterial infections) to about 14 days (for viral infections). The relief methods listed in a question below can provide comfort. Pink eye caused by a virus don’t require treatment unless it’s caused by herpes simplex virus, varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox/shingles) or sexually transmitted diseases. In these cases, an antiviral medication may be prescribed. Antibiotics for pink eye caused by bacteria reduce the length of your symptoms and the amount of time you are contagious.

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