What is pink eye?

Pink eye. That unattractive puffiness and discoloration of the eye and eyelid.

Also known as conjunctivitis, pink eye is a swelling of the membrane that lines the eye and the inside of the eyelid. When the blood vessels in this membrane become inflamed, your eyes can appear pink or red. Pink eye normally doesn’t affect vision, but it can be very uncomfortable and contagious. Diagnosing and treating pink eye as soon as possible can help you limit its spread.1

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What causes pink eye?

Pink eye can be caused by several different types of inflammation or infection. Types of pink eye include:2

  • Viral conjunctivitis—Commonly caused by a virus that can easily be spread by coughing or sneezing. Viral pink eye usually produces a watery discharge. It often resolves on its own, after the virus has run its course.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis—Pink eye can also occur if bacteria enters the eye. This type of pink eye is not as common as viral conjunctivitis. Bacterial pink eye can resolve on its own, but may need antibiotics eye drops to provide relief. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis can be associated with a cold or respiratory infection.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis—If your pink eye is caused by allergies, your doctor may suggest allergy testing to determine the specific cause, which could help prevent future outbreaks. Avoiding contact with the causes of your allergies may also help.
  • Irritation conjunctivitis—Chemicals, smoke, or a foreign object in the eye can also cause pink eye.

Conjunctivitis symptoms

What are some of the more familiar pink eye symptoms?

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eye
  • Itching or burning eyes
  • Increased tears/watery eyes
  • A gritty or irritating sensation in the eye
  • Discharge that dries into a crust, often seen when you wake from sleeping

Pink eye is a pretty common condition. Most cases last a few days, but it is possible for pink eye to go on for weeks, depending on what type it is.3

Is pink eye contagious?

Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious for as long as you are experiencing symptoms.4

People who work with children, like teachers and daycare staff, are at higher risk because pink eye is very common among children.

Since the herpes virus can also cause pink eye, people who get cold sores may also be more prone to getting conjunctivitis.

How does pink eye spread?

Because viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious, it’s important to prevent the infection from spreading from one eye to the other, or from person to person.

Pink eye can spread just like any other virus, so be sure to cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Avoid touching the affected eye and be sure to carefully wash your hands with soap and water if you do touch it. Do not share washcloths or towels while you have the infection.

If you wear contact lenses, stop using them until your eyes feel better and your symptoms clear. Make an appointment with your doctor if your conditions worry you or symptoms persist.5

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) treatment

While it is ugly and uncomfortable, the good news is that pink eye usually clears up on its own. A clean, wet cloth placed over the eye as a compress can help relieve irritation. Try warm or cool water and use what feels best.

However, you should seek medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:6

  • Moderate to severe pain in the eye(s)
  • A sensation that something is stuck in your eye
  • Vision problems, such as sensitivity to light or blurred vision (that does not improve when discharge is wiped away)
  • Intense redness in the eye(s)
  • Symptoms that get worse, last longer than a few days, or are severe

Does pink eye hurt?

In most cases, pink eye is uncomfortable or annoying, rather than painful. Pink eye can also feel itchy or cause a burning sensation in the infected eye.

If your symptoms aren’t getting better after a few days, make an appointment with your doctor. He or she can determine if it is caused by a virus or bacteria and prescribe medication if needed.7

How to prevent pink eye

To avoid immediate re-infection after a case of pink eye you should:8

  • Throw away any eye drops or ointments used for the infection
  • Toss out any makeup or applicators used while infected
  • Throw away contact lens solutions used while infected
  • Toss out contact lenses and cases used while infected
  • Clean your eyeglasses and cases

To prevent a future pink eye infection, there are steps you can take:

  • Try to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water
  • Avoid sharing articles like towels, blankets and pillowcases
  • Clean your eyeglasses
  • Clean, store and replace your contact lenses as instructed by your eye care professional
  • Do not share eye makeup, face makeup, makeup brushes, contact lenses or containers, eyeglasses, or eye drops with anyone, even if they appear to be healthy

Pink eye is a common condition that causes irritation to the affected eye. With proper rinsing and cleaning, plus taking care to avoid spreading the infection, conjunctivitis will usually resolve within a week or so.9

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  1. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis),” Mayo Clinic, last accessed February 27, 2023, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pink-eye/symptoms-causes/syc-20376355.
  2. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  3. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  4. “Pink eye: How long is it contagious?” Mayo Clinic, last accessed February 27, 2023, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pink-eye/expert-answers/pink-eye/faq-20057932.
  5. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  6. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  7. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  8. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”
  9. “Pink eye (conjunctivitis).”