When the lining of your eye gets inflamed, it’s called pink eye, or what doctors call conjunctivitis. You’ll see this as redness or pinkness. Your eye may also be goopy or feel gritty. But the symptoms aren’t always the same, because pink eye isn’t caused by just a single thing.

When most people talk about pink eye, “generally, we mean an eye infection,” says Carlos Lerner, MD. He’s a professor of clinical pediatrics at UCLA Health. In most cases, the infection is caused by a virus, but bacteria can cause pink eye, too. And sometimes it’s neither: Allergies or irritating chemicals can also inflame the lining of the eye.

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If you or your child is starting to feel eye discomfort, here’s what you should know about pink eye.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

The most common symptom is in the name itself: The eye turns pink, or even red. This may be accompanied by itchiness, and it can happen in 1 or both eyes.

Depending on the severity, you may have other symptoms. These include a feeling that there’s “grit” in your eye or that your eyes are filling with tears. You may also have a goopy discharge. This can turn into a crust overnight and make it difficult to open your eyes in the morning.

Is pink eye contagious?

“Pink eye is quite contagious,” Dr. Lerner says. “The main way you’d catch it is by getting a virus or bacteria on your hands and then touching your eye.”

If you or your child has pink eye, the best thing you can do to reduce the risk of it spreading is to wash your hands regularly. When that’s not an option, you can also clean them with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Younger kids with pink eye likely won’t be allowed in daycare or school until the infection clears. And older kids might be kept out of sports, says Dr. Lerner. During this time, you should avoid sharing objects such as towels, makeup or eyeglasses. They can carry pink eye from the infected person’s eye to yours.

If you’re the one with pink eye, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these precautions:

  • Don’t touch or rub your eyes. This can make pink eye worse or spread it from one eye to another.
  • Don’t use the same eye drops in both the infected and uninfected eye.
  • Wash your towels and bed linens in hot water often, and wash your hands after starting your laundry.
  • Skip swimming pools until the pink eye has cleared.
  • If you wear contact lenses, switch to glasses until your doctor says it’s all right to wear contacts again.
  • Throw away any makeup, makeup brushes, disposable contact lenses and contact lens solution that you used while sick.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions for cleaning extended-wear contact lenses, and also clean any glasses you used while sick.

Related reading: Suffering from dry eyes? Here’s how to treat it.

What causes pink eye?

The term “pink eye” doesn’t point to a single specific cause. It’s a more general term that denotes inflammation. It can be caused by a virus, bacteria or a reaction to something in the environment. Let’s take each in turn.

Viruses and pink eye

This is the most common cause of pink eye, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many viruses can lead to inflammation, but the most common ones for pink eye are called adenoviruses (which also cause colds). More serious viruses, such as those that cause chickenpox or herpes, might also be responsible.

Viral pink eye is very contagious, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can spread quickly if you’re not careful.

Bacteria and pink eye

Bacterial pink eye is more common in kids than adults, according to the CDC. Many types of bacteria can cause pink eye, including those associated with staph and ear infections, strep throat or even gonorrhea.

Bacterial pink eye also spreads easily, and the CDC notes that it’s most common in the winter months, between December and April. Mild cases usually resolve themselves in a few days. But in some cases, your doctor may prescribe eye drops or an antibiotic ointment.

Allergens and pink eye

Unlike other forms of pink eye, allergic pink eye is not contagious. It’s caused by the body’s reaction to allergens such as pollen, dust mites, molds, pet dander, medicines and cosmetics. If you already experience other allergic issues, such as hay fever, asthma or eczema, this type of pink eye will be more common to you. (Unfortunately, you’re never too old to develop new allergies.)

After you remove whatever is causing your symptoms, this condition often improves on its own. If not, a doctor can help you find the right allergy medicine that makes you feel better.

Less common causes of pink eye

Sometimes pink eye can be caused by a small object or a chemical getting into the eye. This type of pink eye is similar to an allergy in that it can’t be spread to others.

If you suspect something is in your eye, flush it with water to clear it away, advises the Mayo Clinic. The irritation should clear up in about a day. But if it’s a caustic chemical, such as bleach, that’s able to burn the tissue of your eye, you should flush it first and then get to the doctor as soon as possible.

Do you need to see a doctor about pink eye?

Most cases of mild pink eye don’t require a doctor or pediatrician visit, Dr. Lerner says. Viral pink eye will usually clear up without treatment in 7 to 14 days, and most bacterial cases will clear up quicker — usually in 2 to 5 days (although it can take up to 2 weeks).

In cases of viral pink eye, your child’s school or daycare will likely have a policy that requires the child to stay home for a few days. With bacterial pink eye, children can usually return after 24 hours on antibiotics.

If you wear contacts, Dr. Lerner recommends checking in with your doctor at the onset of symptoms. And there are times when pink eye can be more serious. The CDC and the National Eye Institute (NEI) recommend seeing a doctor in these cases:

  • You have moderate or severe eye pain.
  • You have blurry vision or light sensitivity.
  • The whites of your eyes become very red.
  • Your symptoms don’t go away after a few days.
  • Mucus and crustiness in your eye increase.
  • You have a weakened immune system, such as from HIV or cancer treatment.
  • There’s a sensation that something is “stuck” in your eye.
  • You’re experiencing light sensitivity that doesn’t get better when you clean away the eye goop.

How is pink eye treated?

For most cases of mild viral pink eye, there is no useful treatment. To relieve discomfort, the NEI recommends natural tears and a cold compress (such as a cool washcloth) to help reduce redness and swelling.

For more serious cases of viral pink eye, such as pink eye caused by the chickenpox or herpes virus, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. Similarly, for severe bacterial pink eye, your doctor may recommend antibiotic ointments or eye drops.

Antibiotics may make pink eye less contagious and reduce how long it lasts. But again, this is the case only for bacterial infections — antibiotics won’t do anything for viral or allergic pink eye. (Here are 4 questions to ask before taking antibiotics.)

For allergic pink eye, if the allergen can’t be removed, oral antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec®) or loratadine (Claritin®) can help, says Dr. Lerner. You can also try antihistamine drops such as Visine A® or olopatadine (Pazeo®).

You may be able to save money on these medications by searching our coupon finder tool or by downloading our free discount card and presenting it at the pharmacy.

Whether or not you’re taking medication, keep monitoring your symptoms. If things take a turn for the worse, you’ll want to check in with your doctor. After the discomfort passes, you’ll see the world with clear eyes once again.

Additional sources
Preventing pink eye:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pink eye overview: The Mayo Clinic
Pink eye treatment: National Eye Institute