Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a type of irritation that affects the conjunctiva — the transparent tissue that covers the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelids.
If you have conjunctivitis, one or both of your eyes will appear red and swollen. They may have a sticky discharge, causing you to feel discomfort, itchiness and an unpleasant, burning feeling in the affected eyes.
Most of the time, conjunctivitis is caused by a virus. However, conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacteria and allergic reactions. In some people, conjunctivitis may develop because of fungi, contact lenses, air pollution and a variety of other causes.
Conjunctivitis typically clears up on its own over time. However, depending on the cause of your conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to treat your symptoms and speed up your recovery.
Below, we’ve listed the symptoms that you may experience if you have conjunctivitis (pink eye), as well as the specific factors that may have caused it. We’ve also explained how conjunctivitis is diagnosed and treated, as well as what you can do to prevent it from developing again.
Conjunctivitis typically doesn’t affect your vision. However, it can cause a range of unpleasant and annoying symptoms. These include:
Conjunctivitis can be caused by a virus, bacteria or allergies. Depending on the specific cause of your conjunctivitis, you may experience other symptoms.
If you have viral conjunctivitis, you may also experience cold or flu symptoms at the same time as conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis typically develops in one eye before spreading to the other and can often cause a watery discharge.
Bacterial conjunctivitis may cause pus to discharge from your eyes. This may make your eyes feel sticky and uncomfortable. Bacterial conjunctivitis sometimes develops at the same time as other bacterial infections, such as ear infections.
Allergic conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes at the same time. It may cause symptoms such as severe swelling, tearing and itching in the eyes. Allergic conjunctivitis may develop at the same time as other allergy symptoms, such as asthma, sneezing and allergic rhinitis.
If your conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, it will usually clear up on its own over the course of one to two weeks without treatment. However, you should talk to a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, you should also talk to a healthcare provider if your symptoms haven’t improved after one week or more, or if they’re getting worse over time.
If your newborn child has conjunctivitis, you should contact a healthcare provider as soon as possible for assistance. You should also talk to a healthcare provider if:
Conjunctivitis is usually caused by a viral infection. The same viruses that cause the common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections can cause you to develop conjunctivitis. Some cases of conjunctivitis are also caused by the herpes virus and certain viral STDs.
Other common causes of conjunctivitis include bacterial infections (bacterial conjunctivitis) and allergens (allergic conjunctivitis). Some cases of conjunctivitis may also be caused by irritants, such as certain chemicals, smoke, dust and other substances that can irritate the eyes.
As we mentioned above, each type of conjunctivitis can cause different symptoms. There are also several other differences between viral, bacterial and allergic conjunctivitis.
Because viral conjunctivitis is spread by infectious viruses, it’s very contagious. This type of conjunctivitis can spread quickly during cold and flu season via sneezing, couching, touching and other forms of contact.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is also contagious, especially in environments in which certain bacteria can spread easily. Like viral conjunctivitis, bacterial conjunctivitis is often seasonal and tends to occur more frequently from December through April.
Several different types of bacteria can cause bacterial conjunctivitis. The most common are:
Although the bacteria listed above are the most common sources of bacterial conjunctivitis, it’s also possible for it to develop from other bacteria, including bacterial STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Bacterial conjunctivitis can spread through contaminated items, such as makeup and lotions, as well as through poor hygiene and physical contact with the eyes (for example, touching your eye without first washing your hands).
Allergic conjunctivitis, which is caused by both natural and artificial allergens, tends to develop in people with existing allergies, such as asthma, eczema or hay fever. Unlike viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious.
Several different allergens can cause allergic conjunctivitis. The most common are:
Allergic conjunctivitis can occur seasonally, usually when airborne pollen and mold spores are at their peak level. If you live in an environment with indoor allergens, such as pet dander or dust mites, it’s also possible to catch allergic conjunctivitis at other times of the year.
Most cases of conjunctivitis are caused by viruses, bacteria or allergies. However, conjunctivitis can also develop when certain non-viral, bacterial or allergen substances irritate the eyes. Other potential causes of conjunctivitis include:
If you’re worried that you might have conjunctivitis, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will typically perform an eye examination to check for any symptoms of conjunctivitis. They may also ask you about your symptoms, medical history, allergies, habits and general lifestyle.
The precise symptoms of conjunctivitis can vary based on its cause. To determine the cause, severity and effects of conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider may ask you to do a number of tests. These may include:
Your healthcare provider may also check other parts of your body to determine if your conjunctivitis is related to another health issue, such as a viral or bacterial infection.
Because conjunctivitis has several different causes, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment that’s right for everyone. Your healthcare provider will recommend the most effective treatment based on the type of conjunctivitis you have, your general health and other factors.
Viral conjunctivitis tends to only produce mild symptoms. Most cases of viral conjunctivitis will clear up on their own over one to two weeks. Some cases of viral conjunctivitis may take up to three weeks to fully clear.
If your healthcare provider thinks that your viral conjunctivitis requires treatment, they may prescribe antiviral medication to prevent the growth of the virus and speed up recovery. Antiviral medications are often used for conjunctivitis caused by herpes viruses, such as the herpes simplex virus.
Bacterial conjunctivitis may require treatment with antibiotics, particularly if you have symptoms such as discharge, if you have a weakened immune system, or if your conjunctivitis is caused by a bacteria that could cause complications.
To treat bacterial conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or an ointment for you to apply to your eyes. These medications may help to speed up your recovery, lower your chance of spreading the infection to others and reduce your risk of developing complications.
If your bacterial conjunctivitis is mild, your healthcare provider may not prescribe antibiotics. Most of the time, bacterial conjunctivitis improves within a few days of using antibiotics, although it can take up to two weeks for the infection to completely disappear.
If your conjunctivitis is caused by an allergic reaction, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to control the allergic reaction. Certain medications, such as eye drops containing antihistamines and vasoconstrictors, may help to control your symptoms.
Your healthcare provider may recommend making changes to your habits and environment to avoid further cases of allergic conjunctivitis.
If you have conjunctivitis, it’s best to follow the instructions of your healthcare provider. You may also be able to relieve your symptoms and make recovering easier by using the following home remedies and lifestyle changes:
If you’re worried about getting conjunctivitis, there are simple steps that you can take to reduce your risk of being exposed to conjunctivitis-causing bacteria or viruses from other people.
If you already have conjunctivitis, you can reduce your risk of spreading the bacteria or virus to others by making some small changes to your regular habits.
Conjunctivitis spreads from infected people to others through bacteria or viral particles. If you’re near or in direct contact with a person with visible conjunctivitis symptoms, you can take several steps to lower your risk of becoming infected:
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious. If you have conjunctivitis that’s caused by a virus or bacteria, it’s important that you take the following preventative measures to lower its ability to spread to other people in your community:
Once your conjunctivitis has disappeared, it’s important to take several steps to reduce your risk of developing a recurrent conjunctivitis infection. Make sure that you:
If you have conjunctivitis (pink eye), talking to a healthcare provider can help you learn more about how to deal with your symptoms, treat your infection and recover as quickly as possible.
Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat and manage conjunctivitis (pink eye).
If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to a healthcare provider’s office.