If you are experiencing an unusually itchy or red eye, your eye feels gritty, or you have excessive eye discharge (particularly overnight), you may have conjunctivitis.
Also called pink eye, conjunctivitis is an irritating but common eye condition that affects six million Americans every year.
Under normal circumstances, your conjunctiva, a thin membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the white part of the eye, is clear.
However, when it gets irritated or infected, the small blood vessels inside the membrane become inflamed and expand, giving your eye a pinkish or reddish hue.
Allergies, irritants, injury, or a virus or bacteria infection in the lining of the eye can all cause pink eye.
Although anyone can get pink eye at any time, some people are more at risk for developing the condition than others.
For example, people with allergies or who have recently experienced an upper respiratory tract infection or sore throat are more prone to pink eye.
People who wear contact lenses are more at risk, as are those who have recently come into contact with another infected person.
Young children and infants have a higher-than-average risk for pink eye.
If your newborn baby has puffy or red eyes, schedule a consultation with a doctor right away.
Both the viral and bacterial forms of pink eye are highly contagious. Most of the time, pink eye will go away on its own, but occasionally it can cause long-term vision problems if left untreated.
In this article, I’ll cover the basics of pink eye, including how long it lasts, how it’s treated, and what you can do to prevent it.
Finally, I’ll discuss when you should see a doctor, and how K Health can help if you’re suffering from conjunctivitis.
Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Basics
Conjunctivitis, commonly called pink eye, is an inflammatory condition that affects the conjunctiva, a thin, transparent membrane that lines the inside of your eyelid and covers the white of your eyeball.
When an irritant or infectious agent enters the eye, it causes the small blood vessels in the conjunctiva to swell, making the eye look red or pink.
Other symptoms of pink eye include:
- Burning or itchy eyes
- Watery discharge or tearing
- A gritty feeling in the eye
- A thick or mucusy discharge that forms a crust over your eyes overnight
- An increased urge to touch or rub your eyes
Rarer symptoms include swollen eyelids, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision.
People who wear contact lenses regularly may experience discomfort with their lenses, or have difficulty keeping them in place.
There are two broad types of conjunctivitis: non-infectious and infectious.
Non-infectious types of pink eye occur when a foreign object, toxic substances, or allergens like animal dander, pollen, or dust irritate the eye surface and cause redness.
Infectious pink eye develops because of a viral or bacterial infection.
Allergic conjunctivitis affects 15-40% of the population, and is more common in the spring and summer.
Patients with allergic conjunctivitis often experience symptoms in both eyes and may also sneeze or develop a runny nose when they are exposed to an allergen.
Usually, their condition improves when they limit their exposure to their triggers, or take an allergy medication.
Conjunctivitis can be caused by the eyes coming into contact with smoke, dust, fumes, or other irritants.
When someone’s eye comes into contact with an irritant, it can cause an inflammation of the conjunctiva and lead to watery discharge and redness, among other symptoms.
In mild cases, home remedies like rinsing the eyes with warm water or applying cold or warm compresses can help relieve symptoms.
However, contact a healthcare provider if the symptoms continue to persist.
Viral conjunctivitis, or viral pink eye, is a highly contagious eye infection caused by viruses like the adenovirus, rubella, rubeola, herpes viruses, including varicella-zoster virus (which also causes chickenpox), as well as the virus that causes COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viral conjunctivitis is the most common pink eye in the United States. ‘
Symptoms can last days or weeks, but they usually go away on their own without antiviral medication or other medicines.
Viral conjunctivitis can be contagious, though, so if you have viral pink eye, maintain good hygiene to keep your condition from spreading.
Hand-washing, using separate towels and face cloths, and declining to share makeup are all proven ways you can help keep others safe.
Bacterial conjunctivitis, or bacterial pink eye, is caused by diseases like streptococcus pneumoniae and staphylococcus aureus entering the eye and infecting it.
People can spread bacterial conjunctivitis through hand-to-eye contact, sexual contact, and through contact with infected respiratory droplets.
Young children are particularly at risk for developing bacterial conjunctivitis because they have close contact with others at school and play.
People with bacterial pink eye are often prescribed antibiotic eye drops or ointments to clear their symptoms.
However, in very rare severe cases, some patients can develop hyperacute bacterial conjunctivitis, a pink eye infection can cause vision problems and other health complications if it is not treated effectively.
Pink Eye Duration
Most cases of conjunctivitis are mild, and go away on their own without medical treatment.
Depending on the cause of conjunctivitis, many patients can expect to experience relief within two weeks of infection.
In more serious viral cases, it can take three weeks before all signs of pink eye fully recede.
People who have viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious for as long as they have symptoms, so it’s essential to maintain good hygiene practices and avoid close contact with others for the duration of your infection.
If you believe you are suffering from traumatic conjunctivitis, experiencing pain, or if your symptoms do not get better over time, schedule an appointment with your general practitioner or eye doctor.
Pink eye can be dangerous in newborns.
If you have a new baby suffering from red or puffy eyes, seek medical attention immediately.
Pink Eye Treatment
Most people with viral conjunctivitis must allow the condition to run its course, just like they would a common respiratory virus or cold.
Many find that using at-home remedies like warm or cold compresses, rinsing eyes with warm water, using artificial tears, and discontinuing eye makeup for the duration of the infection helps improve their symptoms.
People who usually wear contact lenses should wear glasses for the duration of any eye infection.
Occasionally, a doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication to treat severe forms of viral conjunctivitis that do not seem to improve with time.
If you are experiencing allergic or irritant conjunctivitis, removing yourself from the environmental triggers that have caused your allergic reaction is one way to find relief.
For some, taking an antihistamine can also help improve symptoms.
If you have symptoms of bacterial pink eye, antibiotic treatments are available by prescription to help speed the healing process.
Common medications prescribed to patients with bacterial pink eye include antibiotic eye drops like tobramycin (Tobrex) or ofloxacin, and antibiotic ointments like ciprofloxacin (Cipro) or erythromycin (Erythrocin).
If you believe you have suffered a traumatic injury to your eye, call your doctor immediately.
Pink Eye Prevention
Using good hygienic practices can help you avoid the viruses and bacteria that cause most kinds of pink eye.
- Wash your sheets and pillowcases often
- Wash your towels and face cloths
- Wash your hands regularly
- Avoid sharing cosmetics like eye makeup with others
- Avoid sharing towels
- Don’t touch or rub your eyes with your hands
- Clean, wear and store contact lenses according to your doctor’s advice
Making sure your vaccines are up to date is one of the best ways to avoid conjunctivitis over the long term.
By inoculating yourself against viruses that cause pink eye, like rubella, measles, chickenpox, and the flu, you reduce your risk of your eyes becoming infected by them.
When to See a Doctor
Although most cases of pink eye will heal on their own, some require medical attention to improve; if you believe you have conjunctivitis and meet any of the following criteria, call your doctor or eye doctor to make an appointment.
- Your eye is very red, or you have an excessive amount of discharge
- You have significant pain in one or both of your eyes
- You have a sensitivity to light, or you are experiencing blurred vision
- Your symptoms have not improved or have worsened over time
- You have a weakened immune system from a chronic condition like cancer, HIV, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease
- You are taking prescribed antibiotic medications and have not experienced relief
- You develop a fever, fatigue, or swollen glands
- You have another eye condition
- You recently experienced a traumatic eye injury
If your newborn has puffy or red eyes, they may have a blocked tear duct or a bacterial eye infection that requires medical attention.
Call your pediatrician’s office to schedule an appointment.
If you or someone you know has symptoms of conjunctivitis and is in severe pain, they might be experiencing a medical emergency.
Call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room.
How K Health Can Help
If you’re not sure what’s causing your eyes to be red or feel irritated, talk to a doctor.
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): For Clinicians. (2021).
Bacterial Conjunctivitis. (2010).
Conjunctivitis: A Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Treatment. (2014).
Conjunctivitis as sole symptom of COVID-19: A case report and review of literature. (2021).
Diagnosis and Management of Red Eye in Primary Care. (2010).