Pink Eye

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Pink Eye

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the eye

Pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. The lining of the eye is usually clear. If irritation or infection occurs, the lining becomes red and swollen. See pictures of a normal eye and an eye with conjunctivitis.

Pink eye is very common. It usually is not serious and goes away in 7 to 10 days without medical treatment.

Common symptoms of pink eye are:

  • Eye redness (hyperemia).
  • Swollen, red eyelids.
  • More tearing than usual.
  • Feeling as if something is in the eye (foreign-body sensation or keratoconjunctivitis).
  • An itching or burning feeling.
  • Mild sensitivity to light (photophobia).
  • Drainage from the eye.

Most cases of pink eye are caused by:

Viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious and spread very easily. Since most pink eye is caused by viruses for which there is usually no medical treatment, preventing its spread is important. Poor handwashing is the main cause of the spread of pink eye. Sharing an object, such as a face cloth or towel, with a person who has pink eye can spread the infection. For tips on how to prevent the spread of pink eye, see the Prevention section of this topic.

People with infectious pink eye should not go to school or daycare, or go to work until symptoms improve.

  • If the pink eye is caused by a virus, the person can usually return to daycare, school, or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically in 3 to 5 days. Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pink eye, so it is important to prevent the spread of the infection. Pink eye caused by a herpes virus, which is rare, can be treated with an antiviral medicine. Home treatment of viral pink eye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
  • If the pink eye is caused by bacteria, the person can usually return to daycare, school, or work 24 hours after an antibiotic has been started if symptoms have improved. Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause pink eye.

Pink eye may be more serious if you:

  • Have a condition that decreases your body's ability to fight infection (impaired immune system).
  • Have vision in only one eye.
  • Wear contact lenses.

Red eye

Red eye is a more general term that includes not only pink eye but also many other problems that cause redness on or around the eye, not just the lining. Pink eye is the main cause of red eye. Red eye has other causes, including:

  • Foreign bodies, such as metal or insects. For more information, go to the topic Objects in the Eye.
  • Scrapes, sores, or injury to or infection of deeper parts of the eye (for example, uveitis, iritis, or keratitis). For more information, go to the topic Eye Injuries.
  • Glaucoma. For more information, go to the topics Eye Problems, Non-injury or Glaucoma.
  • Infection of the eye socket and areas around the eye. For more information, go to the topic Eye Problems, Non-injury.

Swollen, red eyelids may also be caused by styes, a lump called a chalazion, inflammation of the eyelid (blepharitis), or lack of tears (dry eyes). For more information, go to the topics Styes and Chalazia or Eyelid Problems (Blepharitis).

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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  Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointment

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Home treatment for pink eye will help reduce your pain and keep your eye free of drainage. If you wear contacts, remove them and wear glasses until your symptoms have gone away completely. Thoroughly clean your contacts and storage case.

Cold compresses or warm compresses (whichever feels best) can be used. If an allergy is the problem, a cool compress may feel better. If the pink eye is caused by an infection, a warm, moist compress may soothe your eye and help reduce redness and swelling. Warm, moist compresses can spread infection from one eye to the other. Use a different compress for each eye, and use a clean compress for each application.

When cleaning your eye, wipe from the inside (next to the nose) toward the outside. Use a clean surface for each wipe so that drainage being cleaned away is not rubbed back across the eye. If tissues or wipes are used, make sure they are put in the trash and not allowed to sit around. If face cloths are used to clean the eye, put them in the laundry right away so that no one else picks them up or uses them. After wiping your eye, wash your hands to prevent the pink eye from spreading.

After pink eye has been diagnosed:

  • Take steps to prevent the spread of pink eye by following the instructions in the Prevention section of this topic.
  • Do not go to daycare or school or go to work until pink eye has improved.
    • If the pink eye is caused by a virus, the person can usually return to daycare, school, or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically in 3 to 5 days. Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pink eye, so preventing its spread is important. Home treatment of the symptoms will help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
    • If the pink eye is caused by bacteria, the person can usually return to daycare, school, or work after the infection has been treated for 24 hours with an antibiotic and symptoms are improving. Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause pink eye.
  • Use medicine as directed. Medicine may include eyedrops and eye ointment. See a picture of inserting eyedrops or inserting eye ointment.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Eye problems: Using eyedrops and eye ointments

For pink eye related to allergies, antihistamines may help relieve your symptoms. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Decreased or blurred vision develops and it doesn't clear with blinking.
  • Eye pain continues or increases.
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia) develops.
  • Signs of an infection develop.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Pink eye is spread through contact with the eye drainage, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the pink eye. Touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other eye or an object when you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria can be spread.

The following tips help prevent the spread of pink eye.

  • Wash your hands before and after:
    • Touching the eyes or face.
    • Using medicine in the eyes.
  • Do not share eye makeup.
  • Do not use eye makeup until the infection is fully cured, because you could reinfect yourself with the eye makeup products. If your eye infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, throw away your old makeup and buy new products.
  • Do not share contact lens equipment, containers, or solutions.
  • Do not wear contact lenses until the infection is cured. Thoroughly clean your contacts before wearing them again.
  • Do not share eye medicine.
  • Do not share towels, linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and face cloths daily.
  • Wash your hands and wear gloves if you are looking into someone else's eye for a foreign object or helping someone else apply an eye medicine.
  • Wear eye protection when in the wind, heat, or cold to prevent eye irritation.
  • Wear safety glasses when working with chemicals.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • Have you had any vision changes, increased pain in the eye, or increased sensitivity to light?
  • Have you had this problem before? If so, do you know what caused the problem at the time? How was it treated?
  • Do you wear contact lenses or eyeglasses?
  • Does anyone in your family or at your workplace have signs of an eye infection, such as drainage from the eye or red and swollen eyes?
  • Have you been exposed to fumes or chemicals?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription or non-prescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Martin J. Gabica, MD, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised January 28, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.