Pink Eye - What You Need to Know

Published: July 10, 2023
Barbara Young
By Barbara Young, PharmD

If you or your child wakes up one morning with red, swollen eyes and the eyelids are stuck together with a sticky discharge, most likely this is due to pink eye (conjunctivitis). Pink eye is the swelling or inflammation of the thin layer of tissue that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye.

What causes pink eye?
Pink eye is generally caused by a virus, bacteria, or allergies. Viral and bacterial pink eye can be easily passed from one person to another or spread by contact with body fluids, usually by touching your eye with your hands. Bacteria can also spread from your nose or sinuses and from contaminated eye make-up or contact lenses.

Allergic pink eye is caused by pollen, animal dander, cigarette smoke, pool chlorine, or air pollution and is not spread to other individuals.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?
Pink eye causes one or both of your eyes to be red and uncomfortable.

  • Viruses usually produce symptoms of burning, red eyes with a watery discharge.
  • Bacteria usually produce symptoms of sore, red eyes with a lot of sticky pus in the eye; however, some infections may cause little or no discharge.
  • Allergic reactions make the eyes very itchy, red, and watery, and the eye lids may get puffy.

How should you treat pink eye?
Most pink eye infections will go away in a week or two, but if caused by an allergic reaction, it will not go away until the allergy source is eliminated. For relief of all types of pink eye, you can place a warm, damp washcloth over your eye(s) for a few minutes several times a day. Be sure to use a clean washcloth each time and one for each eye so that you don’t spread the infection.

Do not wear contact lenses while you have pink eye. Use a new pair after you recover.

Do not use eye makeup while infected -- replace any used products as they may contain bacteria.

To reduce the discomfort of bacterial or viral pink eye take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

You should call a doctor about pink eye symptoms if you have:

  • pain or are having trouble seeing,
  • sensitivity to light,
  • symptoms for a week or more or are getting worse,
  • a lot of pus or mucus, or
  • other symptoms of an infection, like fever or achiness.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment if you have pink eye caused by bacteria. Antibiotic eye medications will not work for pink eye caused by viruses or allergic reactions. If you have allergic pink eye, your doctor or pharmacist may recommend taking allergy medications and certain eye drops to reduce the swelling and itching.

For tips on using eye medications, see How to Use Eye Drops and How to Use Eye Ointments and Gels.

How do I prevent the spread of pink eye to other family members or friends?
Good hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of pink eye. Wash your hands often and avoid hand-eye contact. Do not share household items that touch your eyes, such as towels, bedding, or pillows with other family members. Do not share eye cosmetics.

Pink eye is a common condition that can usually be treated at home. Good hygiene can prevent getting pink eye and passing along to others.

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