The America’s Best Guide to Pink Eye

Nobody wants to wake up with itchy, crusty eyelids. Here’s how to find relief from pink eye and lower your chances of getting it.

A young woman using eye drops in her home

We’ve all been there: You wake up with crusty, irritated eyelids. You look in the mirror and the whites of your eyes look red and inflamed.

It’s pink eye.

But for a condition so widely known, it turns out there are a lot of misconceptions about pink eye. The truth is there are a few different types of pink eye, and not every kind requires medicated eye drops to treat.

Here’s everything you need to know about pink eye, including how to spot it, treat it, and prevent it.

Have questions about your vision or eye health? Reach out to your America’s Best optometrist, who is an important part of your care team. Book an eye exam today!

What is pink eye?

Also called conjunctivitis, pink eye occurs when the transparent membrane that lines your eyelid and eyeball (called the conjunctiva) becomes inflamed.

There are three types of pink eye, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Viral, which is accompanied by watery discharge. This type usually begins in one eye and spreads to the other. It can be caused by the common cold, flu, or herpes simplex virus, among other viruses.
  • Bacterial, which is usually accompanied by discharge. This type of pink eye sometimes accompanies an ear infection.
  • Allergic, which usually occurs in both eyes. It’s triggered when your eyes encounter an allergen, such as pollen, cigarette smoke, or pool chlorine. This type can produce intense itching, tearing, and swelling. It may also be accompanied by sneezing.

How do you get pink eye?

Pink eye is usually spread through hand-to-eye contact. When you touch an infected person’s bodily fluids and then touch your eye, you could infect yourself.

But pink eye can also be caused by bacteria that lives in your own nose and sinuses.

Poorly cleaned contact lenses are another common pink eye trigger.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

The most common symptoms of pink eye include tearing, itching, and general discomfort, says Kenton McWilliams, O.D., an optometrist who practices at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in St. Louis, Missouri.

Keep an eye out for these other symptoms that may signal pink eye, according to the CDC:

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eye
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva and/or eyelids
  • Increased tear production
  • Feeling like a foreign body is in the eye, or feeling an urge to rub your eye
  • Itching, irritation, and burning
  • Eye discharge (pus or mucus)
  • Crusting of eyelids or lashes, especially upon waking up in the morning
  • Contact lenses that feel uncomfortable or do not stay in place on the eye

How is pink eye diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of pink eye, it’s a good idea to call your optometrist. They can diagnose you after an eye exam.

The first goal is to figure out whether a virus, bacteria, or allergen has triggered your pink eye. That will become clear once you discuss your symptoms and have your eyes examined, says Dr. McWilliams.

Your optometrist will also try to rule out other eye issues that could be contributing to your pink eye.

“When we examine the eyes, we look at the cornea to make sure there aren’t signs of bacteria or some other kind of virus like herpes,” he says. “If you wear contacts, we also want to make sure you don’t have a corneal infection. Once we rule those out, we can assess if you have conjunctivitis.”

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How is pink eye treated?

Treatments for pink eye depend on which type you have, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA).

Viral conjunctivitis

Most cases of viral pink eye clear up within a week or two without treatment, according to the CDC. But more serious cases may take two to three weeks to resolve.

There are no eye drops or medications that can treat viral pink eye, according to the AOA. Like any virus, it has to run its course. Cool compresses and artificial tears may relieve your discomfort in the meantime.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

This type of pink eye usually resolves after three or four days of treatment. Your optometrist will likely prescribe antibiotic eye drops.

Allergic conjunctivitis

The first step in treating allergic pink eye is to remove the allergen from your eyes — and then avoid the irritant so you don’t trigger a recurrence of pink eye.

You may also find relief from:

  • Cool compresses
  • Artificial tears
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Topical steroid drops
  • Oral antihistamines

What are the complications of pink eye?

While pink eye can feel painful and uncomfortable, it doesn’t typically cause any long-term complications. Once your symptoms resolve in a few days, your eyes and vision should be back to normal.

If your symptoms last longer than a week or two, though, you should make another call to your optometrist. They’ll want to reexamine your eyes and check for signs of infection.

“These include herpes simplex virus which can cause a corneal infection,” says Dr. McWilliams. “That can be severe.”

Is pink eye contagious?

“Most people don’t know that pink eye isn’t necessarily contagious,” says Dr. McWilliams. It depends on which type of pink eye you have.

Viral and bacterial forms of pink eye are both very contagious. “If this is the case, we would advise you to stay away from other people or school,” he says.

Allergic conjunctivitis, on the other hand, is not contagious.

Only an optometrist can properly diagnose your type of pink eye and determine whether your conjunctivitis is contagious.

Can pink eye be prevented?

Since pink eye has so many causes, it’s nearly impossible to prevent it entirely. But practicing good hygiene can help keep you from reinfecting yourself or spreading your pink eye to someone else.

“Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face or eyes,” says Dr. McWilliams.

Follow these other tips to stay safe:

  • Only use clean towels or tissues whenever you wipe your face or eyes.
  • Always wash your hands before and after you eat, after sneezing or coughing, and after using the restroom.
  • Never share eye makeup with friends, and replace your eye makeup as soon as you notice symptoms of pink eye.
  • Don’t use eye makeup when you have pink eye.
  • Clean and replace your contact lenses as directed by your eye doctor.
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses until your symptoms resolve.

What do contact lens users need to know about preventing pink eye?

Wearing contacts isn’t a good idea when you have pink eye. That’s because contact lenses, especially improperly cleaned ones, can transfer viruses, bacteria, and irritants to your eyes. That can cause pink eye or lead to reinfection.

Because you wear a new pair every day, daily contact lenses pose a lower risk of pink eye. There are less irritants, like pollen, that get stuck in the lens.

If you wear monthly contacts, it’s important to clean them exactly as directed. Make sure you use the proper solution to clean them. And avoid overwearing your contacts — that means you should remove them each night and replace them as directed by your optometrist.

When should I see a doctor?

Pink eye often clears up on its own. But some types of pink eye require medication to treat.

“If your symptoms linger for more than a few days, I’d make that appointment,” says Dr. McWilliams.

You should also call your eye doctor if you have the following symptoms:

  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to light or blurry vision that doesn’t improve when you wipe discharge from your eye
  • Intense redness
  • Pink eye that doesn’t improve after 24 hours on antibiotics
  • A weakened immune system, such as from HIV or cancer treatment

Your optometrist can help determine which type of pink eye you have and prescribe you medication to treat your pink eye, or at least ease your discomfort.

Medically reviewed by Kenton McWilliams, O.D.

See our sources:
Pink eye symptoms: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Conjunctivitis overview: American Academy of Ophthalmology
Pink eye facts: American Optometric Association
Pink eye treatment: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pink eye overview: Mayo Clinic