Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is an inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane (conjunctiva) that lines your eyelid and covers the white part of your eyeball. Pink eye is commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection or an allergic reaction. It may affect one or both eyes.
Pink eye may affect one or both eyes. Its signs and symptoms include:
- A gritty feeling
- A discharge that forms a crust during the night that may prevent your eye or eyes from opening in the morning
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any signs or symptoms you think might be pink eye. Pink eye can be highly contagious for as long as two weeks after signs and symptoms begin. Early diagnosis and treatment can protect people around you from getting pink eye too.
Causes of pink eye include:
- A chemical splash in the eye
- A foreign object in the eye
Your risk of having pink eye increases with:
- Exposure to something for which you have an allergy (allergic conjunctivitis)
- Exposure to someone infected with the viral or bacterial form of conjunctivitis
- Use of contact lenses
In both children and adults, pink eye can cause inflammation in the cornea. This can affect vision. Prompt evaluation and treatment by your doctor can reduce the risk of complications.
What you can do in the meantime
If you use contact lenses, remove them until you can see your doctor. Wash your hands frequently to lessen the chance of infecting other people. Don’t share towels with other people for the same reason.
You could try artificial tears. Or apply warm or cold compresses to your eyes for a few minutes several times a day. These steps may ease your discomfort until you see your doctor.
Tests and diagnosis
To determine whether you have pink eye, your doctor will ask you about your health history and symptoms and examine your eyes. He or she may also take a sample of eye secretions for laboratory analysis if:
- You have a very severe case of conjunctivitis
- Your corneas are affected
- You’ve had repeated infections that aren’t responding to treatment
If your pink eye is caused by allergies, your doctor may suggest allergy testing to help determine which specific allergens to avoid.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis
More than half of bacterial conjunctivitis cases will clear up in one to two weeks without treatment. Taking an antibiotic may speed up the healing process. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops or ointment. Ointment may blur vision for up to 20 minutes after application.
With either form of medication, expect signs and symptoms to start getting better in a few days. Follow your doctor’s instructions and use the antibiotics for the complete period prescribed. This helps prevent the infection from recurring.
Treatment for viral conjunctivitis
In most cases, no treatment is available for viral conjunctivitis. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication if your condition is caused by the herpes simplex virus.
Viral conjunctivitis often begins in one eye and then infects the other eye within a few days. Your signs and symptoms will likely clear up as the virus runs its course over one to two weeks.
Treatment for allergic conjunctivitis
If you have allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe from among many different types of eyedrops for people with allergies. These may include:
- Drugs that help control allergic reactions, such as a combination of antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers
- Drugs that help control inflammation, such as decongestants, steroids and anti-inflammatory eyedrops
Lifestyle and home remedies
Apply a compress to your eyes.
Stop wearing contact lensese
Avoid whatever causes your symptoms.
Wash your clothes frequently.
Bathe or shower before bedtime.
Preventing the spread of pink eye
Practice good hygiene to control the spread of pink eye. For instance:
- Don’t touch your eyes with your hands.
- Wash your hands often.
- Use only clean towels and washcloths.
- Don’t share towels or washcloths.
- Change your pillowcases often.
- Avoid swimming in a swimming pool.
- Throw away your eye cosmetics, such as mascara.
- Don’t share eye cosmetics or personal eye care items.
- Use any antibiotics for the complete period prescribed.
Pink eye symptoms may resolve in three to seven days. Children with viral conjunctivitis may be contagious for a week or more. Children may return to school when the redness and discharge in their eyes subsides.
If your child has bacterial conjunctivitis, keep him or her away from school until after treatment is started. Most schools and child care facilities require that your child wait at least 24 hours after starting treatment before returning to school or child care. Check with your doctor if you have any questions about when your child can return to school or child care.
Preventing pink eye in newborns
Newborns’ eyes are susceptible to bacteria normally present in the mother’s birth canal. These bacteria cause no symptoms in the mother. In rare cases, these bacteria can cause infants to develop a serious form of conjunctivitis known as ophthalmia neonatorum. This condition needs treatment without delay to preserve sight. That’s why shortly after birth, an antibiotic ointment is applied to every newborn’s eyes. The ointment helps prevent eye infection.