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Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis)

Topic Overview

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"), and pinkeye is also called conjunctivitis (say "kun-JUNK-tih-VY-tus"). The lining of the eye is normally clear and colorless.

Pinkeye is common. It usually spreads easily, especially among children in day care centers and schools.

Because pinkeye is often spread from eye to hand to eye, good hand-washing is important. Sharing a washcloth, towel, or other item with a person who has pinkeye can spread the infection.

See pictures of a normal eye and one with conjunctivitis.

What causes pinkeye?

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.

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. 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 pinkeye 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 it treated?

If your doctor thinks the pinkeye is caused by bacteria, he or she may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointment to kill the bacteria. See a picture of how to apply eye drops or eye ointment. 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 clears on its own in 7 to 10 days. If your symptoms last longer, call your doctor.

Click here to view an Actionset. Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointments.

If the pinkeye is caused by an allergy or chemical, it will not go away until you avoid whatever is causing it.

Home treatment of pinkeye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.

  • Wash your hands often. Always wash them before and after you treat pinkeye or touch your eyes or face.
  • Use moist cotton or a clean, wet cloth to remove crust. Wipe from the inside corner of the eye to the outside. Use a clean part of the cloth for each wipe. If the infection is in only one eye, be careful not to spread it to the other eye.
  • Put cold or warm wet cloths (whichever feels better) on your eye a few times a day if the eye hurts.
  • Do not wear contact lenses until the pinkeye is gone. Sterilize your contacts, and clean your storage case. If you wear disposable contacts, use a new pair when your eye has cleared and it is safe to wear contacts again. Wait at least 2 days after the symptoms are gone before you wear contacts again.
  • If the doctor gave you antibiotic eyedrops or ointment, use them as directed. Use the medicine for as long as instructed, even if your eye starts to look better sooner. Keep the bottle tip clean, and do not let it touch the eye area.
  • Do not wear eye makeup until the pinkeye is gone. Throw away any eye makeup you were using when you got pinkeye.
  • Do not share towels, pillows, or washcloths while you have pinkeye.
  • Use allergy eyedrops and medicines to reduce symptoms of pinkeye caused by allergies.

How can you avoid spreading pinkeye?

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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  Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointment

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)
P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA  94120-7424
Phone: (415) 561-8500
Fax: (415) 561-8533
Web Address: www.aao.org
 

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) is an association of medical eye doctors. It provides general information and brochures on eye conditions and diseases and low-vision resources and services. The AAO is not able to answer questions about specific medical problems or conditions.



American Optometric Association (AOA)
243 North Lindbergh Boulevard
St. Louis, MO  63141
Phone: 1-800-365-2219
Web Address: www.aoa.org
 

The American Optometric Association (AOA), which is a national organization of optometrists, can provide information on eye health and eye problems.



National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health
Information Office
31 Center Drive MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD  20892-2510
Phone: (301) 496-5248
Email: 2020@nei.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nei.nih.gov
 

As part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute provides information on eye diseases and vision research. Publications are available to the public at no charge. The Web site includes links to various information resources.



References

Other Works Consulted

  • Epling J (2007). Bacterial conjunctivitis, search date January 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  • Garcia-Ferrer FJ, et al. (2008). Conjunctiva. In P Riordan-Eva, JP Whitcher, eds., Vaughan and Asbury's General Ophthalmology, 17th ed., pp. 98–124. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised November 2, 2011

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