Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/03/2020
Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is an inflammation or infection that occurs in the conjunctiva — a type of thin, clear membrane that covers parts of your eyes and eyelids.
Common causes of conjunctivitis include bacteria, viruses and allergens. However, it’s also possible for other factors to contribute to conjunctivitis, such as use of contact lenses or any other foreign bodies that come into contact with your eyes.
Conjunctivitis can cause one or both of your eyes to become pink or red in color, swollen and uncomfortable. Your eyes may start to itch, produce more tears and release a thick or watery discharge.
Dealing with conjunctivitis can be unpleasant. Mild episodes of conjunctivitis may go away in two to five days without treatment, but some cases can take up to two weeks. If you have severe or persistent conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider may recommend using medication to manage your symptoms and improve recovery.
Below, we’ve provided information about conjunctivitis’s symptoms and causes, as well as the steps you can take if you think you’re affected. We’ve also listed conjunctivitis treatments and prevention tactics, from medications to home remedies, lifestyle change and more.
Conjunctivitis can cause a range of symptoms, some of which may make your eyes and eyelids feel uncomfortable. Common symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
Red or pink coloration that affects the white parts of your eyes
Swelling and irritation of your conjunctiva (the clear membrane over your eyes) and eyelids
A feeling that something is in your eyes, accompanied by an urge to rub your eyeballs and/or eyelids
Discharge of pus or mucus from your eyes
Crusting that affects your eyes and eyelids, especially after waking up. In some cases, crusting from discharge may cause your eyelids to temporarily stick together
Increased tear production
Discomfort and difficulty wearing contact lenses
Your eyes may feel uncomfortable, itchy and painful while you have conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis won’t permanently affect your vision. However, you may notice slightly hazy or blurry while your eyes are affected by conjunctivitis.
In addition to the common symptoms listed above, you may experience several other symptoms based on the type of conjunctivitis you have.
Viral conjunctivitis, which is the most common type of conjunctivitis, usually beings in one eye before potentially spreading to another. This type of conjunctivitis usually causes a thin, watery type of discharge and is often accompanied by a cold, flu or other respiratory illness.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is more commonly associated with thicker, sticky discharge. This type of conjunctivitis may cause your eyelids to stick together. It often develops at the same time as a bacterial infection of the ear.
Allergic conjunctivitis often causes itching, swelling and excessive tear production. This type of conjunctivitis usually affects both of your eyes at once and may develop alongside other allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, an itchy throat or asthma.
Finally, conjunctivitis caused by irritants, such as chemicals, fungi and foreign bodies that enter the eyes and/or eyelids, tends to produce mucus discharge and watery eyes.
Most of the time, viral conjunctivitis — the type caused by a viral infection like the common cold or the flu — will get better without any treatment over the course of several weeks. However, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider if you develop any of the following symptoms:
Intense, significant redness in your eyes
Pain and discomfort in your eyes and/or eyelids
Sensitivity to light or blurred vision that doesn’t improve after you wipe away discharge
You should also talk to a healthcare provider if you:
Have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition such as HIV/AIDs, use of certain medical treatments or for any other reason
Have already taken antibiotics to treat conjunctivitis, but find your symptoms worsening or failing to improve after 24 hours
Conjunctivitis can often develop in newborn children. Known as neonatal conjunctivitis, this can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection passed on during childbirth, by irritation caused by the topical antimicrobials used during birth, or by a blocked tear duct.
If neonatal conjunctivitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, it can be very serious. Some viruses and bacteria that can cause conjunctivitis in newborn babies can spread throughout the body, potentially causing damage to the eyes and other organs.
If your newborn baby is displaying symptoms of conjunctivitis, contact a healthcare provider immediately for medical assistance.
Conjunctivitis has several possible causes, including viruses, bacteria, allergies and irritants that come into contact with the eyes.
Most cases of conjunctivitis are caused by viruses, including the same viruses that cause the flu and the common cold. Although uncommon, it’s possible for certain viral STDs and the herpes virus to cause viral conjunctivitis.
Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious. It can spread easily from person to person and is often the cause of large outbreaks of conjunctivitis.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by a variety of bacteria infections, such as the Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, Chlamydia trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria.
In general, bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children than in adults. It often develops from December through to April and, when caused by some types of bacteria, can spread easily from an infected person to others.
Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by a biological reaction to certain allergens, such as tree, plant or grass pollen, molds, dust mites, pet dander, cosmetics and some types of medication.
This form of conjunctivitis isn’t contagious, meaning it can’t spread to other people. You may have a higher risk of developing allergic conjunctivitis if you have an allergic condition such as asthma, hay fever or eczema.
You may also be more at risk of developing allergic conjunctivitis during pollen season, or if you have a source of allergens, such as a pet, inside your home.
Irritants and other substances that come into contact with your eyes may also contribute to the development of conjunctivitis. In addition to the factors listed above, other potential causes of conjunctivitis include:
Fungi. Although rare, fungal infections can spread into the eyes and cause conjunctivitis to develop. It’s important to seek medical help immediately if you have a fungal infection that spreads to the eyes, as infections of this type can cause serious complications.
Parasites. Certain parasitic infections can develop in the eyes, causing symptoms that may include conjunctivitis.
Chemical irritants. Chemicals, such as chlorine used to sanitize swimming pools, can irritate certain parts of your eyes and cause a form of conjunctivitis known as chemical conjunctivitis.
Loose eyelashes. Foreign bodies such as loose eyelashes can fall into your eyes and become stuck, irritating the eyes and leading to conjunctivitis. Some eyelash extensions and false eyelashes may cause conjunctivitis if they’re contaminated with bacteria.
Contact lenses. If you wear contact lenses, you could develop a form of conjunctivitis referred to as giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) — an allergic reaction that affects the tissue on the inside of your eyelids.
Diagnosing conjunctivitis is a straightforward process. To diagnose conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms, their severity and how recently they developed. You may need to have an eye exam to allow your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your conjunctivitis.
If your healthcare provider can’t determine the cause of your conjunctivitis based on visible symptoms, they may ask to take a sample of discharge from your eyes. This sample will be analyzed in a lab to help determine the cause of your conjunctivitis and the most appropriate treatment.
Treatment for conjunctivitis can vary based on the cause of your conjunctivitis, the severity of your symptoms and whether or not you have an existing health condition that may affect your immune system and worsen the infection.
If you only have mild conjunctivitis without any of the symptoms or medical conditions in the “When Should You Talk to a Healthcare Provider?” section above, the following over-the-counter products and home remedies may help to control your symptoms:
Lubricating eye drops. Available from most drug stores, lubricating eye drops, which are also known as artificial tears, add moisture to your eyes and help your natural tear film keep your eyes protected.
Over-the-counter pain relief medications. Medications like ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can make pain and discomfort from conjunctivitis less easier to deal with while you focus on getting better.
Avoid wearing eye makeup. Makeup that’s applied close to the eyes or directly to your eyelids may worsen conjunctivitis. You may also reinfect yourself via makeup. It’s best to throw away any old eye makeup and replace it once your infection clears up.
Stop wearing contact lenses. If you wear contacts, it’s best to stop wearing them while you have conjunctivitis. Throw away your old contacts and replace them with a new pair after your infection clears to prevent your eyes from becoming reinfected.
Place a warm, damp washcloth over your eyes. To try this, soak a clean washcloth in warm water, then wring it out to remove excess water. Place the cloth over your eyes for a few minutes and remove it after it’s cooled down.
This can help to relieve discomfort and remove the dried mucus or discharge that builds up in your eyelids. Make sure to use a clean washcloth each time you do this. If both of your eyes are affected, use a separate cloth for each eye to avoid spreading bacteria.
Viral conjunctivitis usually only causes mild symptoms and passes on its own over seven to 14 days without treatment. It’s uncommon for viral conjunctivitis to produce any long-term effects on your vision or general health.
Sometimes, viral conjunctivitis may last for two to three weeks or longer. If you have persistent conjunctivitis that doesn’t seem to get better on its own, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about the treatment options that are available.
Viral conjunctivitis, caused by the varicella-zoster virus or herpes simplex virus, can be treated using antiviral medication. Your healthcare provider may recommend an antiviral medication if you have this severe form of conjunctivitis.
If your conjunctivitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to kill the bacteria and shorten the period of infection, reduce the severity of symptoms and lower your risk of transmitting the infection to others.
Most antibiotics used to treat conjunctivitis are sold as eye drops or ointment that you’ll need to apply to your eyes and/or eyelids.
You may need to use antibiotics if your conjunctivitis has thick discharge, or if a test indicates a bacterial infection. It’s especially important to seek treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis if you have a compromised immune system due to a medical condition or use of medication.
Allergic conjunctivitis typically improves after you avoid exposure to the allergen, such as pollen or pet dander, responsible for your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may prescribe eye drops that contain antihistamines or vasoconstrictors to control your symptoms and provide temporary relief.
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis can spread easily, especially in certain environments. However, there are several simple steps that you can take to reduce your risk of developing conjunctivitis due to a viral or bacterial infection:
Take precautions around people with visible conjunctivitis symptoms. If you work, socialize or otherwise spend time with someone who has conjunctivitis, make sure that you wash your hands after contact with each other.
If someone in your home has conjunctivitis, make sure that you wash your hands after you come into contact with any of their possessions or shared items, or after assisting them with eye drops, ointments or other conjunctivitis treatments.
To make sure you kill all bacteria or virus particles, try counting to 20 while you wash your hands.
Avoid touching your eyes and eyelids. This can spread bacteria and virus particles into your eyes, potentially leading to conjunctivitis. If you need to touch your eyes, it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly beforehand.
If you can’t wash with soap and water, use hand sanitizer. This will help to kill any bacteria or virus particles while you’re on the go. Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content to remove as many bacteria and particles as possible.
While there’s no vaccine for conjunctivitis, vaccines for some viruses and bacterial infections may reduce your risk of developing illnesses that often result in conjunctivitis. These include vaccines for:
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib disease)
If you currently have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, you can reduce your risk of passing it on to others using the following steps:
Avoid touching your eyes. Touching, rubbing or pressing on your eyes and eyelids can spread conjunctivitis from one of your eyes to the other and increase your risk of passing it on to other people. It may worsen your symptoms.
Wash your hands frequently. Bacteria and viruses that cause conjunctivitis can live on your hands and be passed on to others, especially if you touch your eyes or eyelids and then come into contact with another person.
To avoid spreading conjunctivitis, wash your hands often using soap and warm or a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. It’s especially important to wash your hands before and after you apply eye drops, ointments or other treatments.
Clean discharge using a warm, damp washcloth. After you’ve finished cleaning away any discharge, wash the washcloth with hot water and detergent. Wash your hands after cleaning your eyes to avoid spreading viral particles or bacteria.
Make sure not to share personal items. Sharing pillows, towels, washcloths, glasses, makeup and other items can spread the bacteria and viruses that cause conjunctivitis to develop.
Wash sheets, pillowcases and other items often. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, cloths and other even clothing can harbor bacteria and viruses that cause conjunctivitis. Wash these items regularly using hot water and detergent to keep them clean and safe.
After you’ve finished washing these items, wash your hands to make sure that bacteria and virus particles can’t survive.
Use a different eye drop dispenser for each eye. If you only have conjunctivitis in one eye, make sure not to use the same eye drops for both eyes, as this increases your risk of spreading the infection to your non-affected eye.
It’s possible to become reinfected with conjunctivitis after the initial symptoms clear. To avoid a recurring infection, make sure to :
Dispose of any makeup you used while you had conjunctivitis symptoms. Makeup brushes, face and eye makeup, contact lenses, contact lens solution and eye drops can all contain bacteria and/or virus particles and need to be disposed of safely.
Clean extended wear lenses, eyeglasses and cases. You don’t need to throw these away. However, it’s important to clean them thoroughly to make sure no bacteria and/or virus particles survive and cause reinfection.
Carefully follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Your may have provided additional instructions for you to follow after your conjunctivitis clears up. Follow any advice you’ve received closely and carefully to avoid recurring symptoms.
Conjunctivitis can be an annoying, stressful condition. Luckily, it’s easily treatable using a variety of over-the-counter products, and, if necessary, antibiotics or antiviral medications.
If you have conjunctivitis that doesn’t seem to be getting better, or if you have severe symptoms that are causing you discomfort, talking to a healthcare provider can help you learn more about the treatment options that are available to you.
Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat and manage conjunctivitis.
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.