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Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis)

Condition Basics

What is pinkeye?

Pinkeye is redness and swelling of the lining of the eyelid and eye surface. The lining is called the conjunctiva (say "kawn-junk-TY-vuh"). Pinkeye is also called conjunctivitis (say "kun-JUNK-tih-VY-tus"). The lining of the eye is normally clear and colorless.

What causes it?

Pinkeye is most often caused by a virus. It usually occurs at the same time as or right after you have had a cold. Less commonly, pinkeye can be caused by infection with bacteria. Dry air, allergies, smoke, and chemicals can also cause pinkeye.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of pinkeye include:

  • Redness.
  • Itchy or burning eyes.
  • More tears than usual. The eye may drain a clear or slightly thick, whitish liquid.
  • Gray or yellow drainage from the eye. Waking up with the eyelashes of one or both eyes stuck together from this dried drainage is a common symptom of pinkeye.
  • Mild sensitivity to light (photophobia).

You may have symptoms in one eye, both eyes, or the symptoms may spread from one eye to the other eye. When pinkeye is caused by a virus, symptoms usually start in one eye and may then spread to the other eye.

If you think you have pinkeye, call your doctor to find out the best way to treat it. And if you are wearing contact lenses, be sure to take them out right away. Certain health risks may increase the seriousness of your symptoms.

If you have other symptoms like eye pain or a change in your vision, if you wear contact lenses, or if you have other medical problems, you may have a more serious eye problem. In these cases it is especially important to see a doctor. Young children with pinkeye may also have an ear infection, so they may need to see a doctor.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose pinkeye with an eye exam and by asking questions about your symptoms. Sometimes the doctor will use a cotton swab to take some fluid from around your eye so it can be tested for bacteria or other infection.

How is pinkeye treated?

If your doctor thinks the pinkeye is caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointment to kill the bacteria. With antibiotic treatment, symptoms usually go away in 2 to 3 days. But antibiotics only work for bacterial pinkeye, not for the more common viral pinkeye. Viral pinkeye often improves on its own in 7 to 10 days. But it can last longer. If your symptoms last longer, call your doctor.

If the pinkeye is caused by an allergy or chemical, it won't go away until you avoid what's causing it.

Home treatment of pinkeye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away. Try using a clean, moist cloth to remove crust. Use allergy eyedrops and medicines to reduce symptoms of pinkeye caused by allergies. You may also close your eye and use warm, wet cloths on it a few times a day if it hurts.

How can you prevent it?

Pinkeye caused by a virus or bacteria is spread through contact with the eye drainage. 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, you can spread the virus or bacteria.

Follow these tips to help prevent the spread of pinkeye:

  • Wash your hands before and after you touch your eyes or face or use medicine in your eyes.
  • Do not share eye makeup.
  • Do not share contact lens equipment, containers, or solutions.
  • Do not share eye medicine.
  • Do not share towels, bed linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and washcloths each day.

Some schools ask that children with pinkeye be kept at home until they are better or have started antibiotic treatment.

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Credits

Current as of: April 29, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine