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:
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:
You should also talk to a healthcare provider if you:
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:
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:
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:
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:
If you currently have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, you can reduce your risk of passing it on to others using the following steps:
It’s possible to become reinfected with conjunctivitis after the initial symptoms clear. To avoid a recurring infection, make sure to :
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.