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Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

What Is Pinkeye?

A woman holds a tissue to her irritated eye.

Pinkeye is a common name for conjunctivitis, a condition that causes inflammation and redness of the membranes inside the eyes. Viruses, bacterial infections, allergies, or chemical agents can cause pinkeye. Sometimes it is the result of a chronic medical condition. Most commonly, a virus or bacterial infection causes pinkeye.

Is Pinkeye Contagious?

Two girls blow noisemakers at a party.

Infectious forms of pinkeye are highly contagious. It is easily transmitted among humans by contact with an infected person or objects that are shared with an infected person. Coughing and sneezing are other possible routes of spread. Children with pinkeye will need to stay home from school or daycare for a short period of time. Pinkeye due to allergic reactions or contact with chemical agents is not contagious.

Symptom: Eye Redness

Eye redness is a symptom of pinkeye.

The hallmark sign of pinkeye is redness of the eye. Pinkeye is very common and rarely causes long-term problems or vision damage.

Symptom: Swollen, Red Eyelids

A young girl with a swollen eyelid from pinkeye

Infections that cause of pinkeye usually start first in one eye and then spread to the other eye within a few days. Allergic reactions usually involve both eyes right away. Swelling of the eyelids may be seen; this is particularly common with bacterial infections and allergies.

Symptom: Lots of Tearing

A close-up view of heavy inflammation in the eye.

Increased production of tears (watery eyes) is common in viral and allergic pinkeye.

Symptom: Itchy or Burning Eyes

Eye irritation caused by viral conjunctivitis.

Other symptoms of pinkeye include itching and burning of the eyes.

Symptom: Drainage From the Eyes

Acute bacterial conjunctivitis with pus around the eye

Watery eyes are common with viral and allergic pinkeye. When the eye drains greenish-yellow fluid as seen here, this is most likely to be caused by bacterial pinkeye.

Symptom: Crusty Eyelids

Crusts on a swollen eyelid from a viral infection.

Sometimes people with pinkeye awaken in the morning with their eyes "stuck shut" due to discharge that is produced during sleep.

Symptom: Sensitivity to Light

Sunspots from bright light filter through the trees.

Mild sensitivity to light can accompany pinkeye. But severe pain, severe sensitivity to light, and vision changes are all signs that the infection may have spread beyond the conjunctiva. These symptoms should prompt a visit to the doctor for an examination.

Symptom: Foreign Feeling in the Eye

A young man rubs his irritated eye.

Sometimes pinkeye can feel like there is something in your eye, or a feeling of sand in the eye. Children with pinkeye may describe their symptoms this way.

Diagnosing Pinkeye

An optometrist examines a patient.

Pinkeye can often be diagnosed simply by observing the typical symptoms and signs. In some cases, the doctor will examine the eye with a slit lamp instrument, as shown here. Samples of discharge from the eyes may be taken and sent to a lab to identify the infection in some cases.

When Pinkeye Means Something More

A boy with conjunctivitis takes an eye exam.

Chronic pinkeye can signal the presence of an underlying medical disease. These are most commonly rheumatic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Pinkeye can also be associated with Kawasaki disease (an uncommon disease that causes fever in infants and young children) and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Pinkeye Treatment

Close-up of a man applying drops to the eye.

Antibiotics, in the form of eyedrops, pills, or ointment, are the recommended treatment for bacterial pinkeye. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections and there is no specific treatment. The viral infection typically lasts for four to seven days. Treatment of allergies can help improve symptoms of allergic pinkeye. Chemical pinkeye should be treated immediately by a doctor after washing the affected eye for five minutes.

Relieving Symptoms

A woman washes around her eye with a washcloth.

Cold or warm compresses applied to the eyes can help clear the discharge associated with viral or bacterial pinkeye. Use a different washcloth for each eye, and use clean washcloths each time you wash. Wiping from the inside to the outside of the eye area is the best way to clean the eyes.

How Long Is Pinkeye Contagious?

A doctor checks a young male patient's eye.

If symptoms have improved, you can usually go back to school or work 24 hours after starting antibiotics for bacterial pinkeye. Viral pinkeye is different, and you can spread the condition as long as you have symptoms. Your doctor can tell you when it is safe to return to work or school.

Pinkeye Prevention

A woman washes her hands with soap and water.

Always wash your hands well and frequently if you or your child has pinkeye, and try not to touch the eye area. Wash hands after applying medications to the eyes. To avoid spreading the infection, do not share towels or other products, change linens and towels daily, disinfect surfaces like countertops and doorknobs, and throw away tissues after each use. If you use makeup, throw away any makeup that you used on the eye area while infected.

Reviewed by William Baer, MD on 5/3/2016

Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

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