An eye cold is the viral form of conjunctivitis. You might also hear an eye cold referred to as pink eye. “Pink eye” is a general term to describe any form of conjunctivitis, which can be viral, bacterial, or caused by allergies. “Eye cold” refers only to the viral type, and it can be in one or, more often, both eyes.

Eye colds take about 7 to 10 days to clear up and are very contagious. If you have an eye cold, it’s best to avoid contact with others and wash your hands often during your illness.

Signs of an eye cold (viral conjunctivitis) include general conjunctivitis symptoms like reddening of the whites of your eyes, sensitivity to light, swollen eyelids, and clear, white, or yellow discharge from your eyes. If you have an eye cold, you might have watery discharge from your eyes.

Eye cold versus bacterial or allergic conjunctivitis

An eye cold will usually cause a watery rather than thick discharge and may accompany a common cold or respiratory tract infection.

Bacterial conjunctivitis often occurs at the same time as an ear infection, and the discharge tends to be thick instead of watery and often affects just one eye.

Allergic conjunctivitis generally happens when pollen counts are high, and other allergic symptoms might be present, like itchy eyes.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor so that they can determine the cause and the right treatment.

An adenovirus is the most common cause of an eye cold. Adenoviruses are some of the same viruses that cause head and chest colds. This is why handwashing is an important part of care and prevention. Conjunctivitis (both viral and bacterial) is very easy to spread to other people.

Viruses are the most common cause of pink eye caused by an infection in general, usually clearing up on their own in a few days to two weeks.

In extremely rare cases, the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) gonorrhoea and chlamydia are the cause of eye infections and share symptoms of conjunctivitis. Ocular herpes, or eye herpes, is also a less likely but complicated viral infection that shares many of the same symptoms as conjunctivitis.

There are several conditions that appear similar to conjunctivitis, like eyelid cellulitis and keratitis, which is why it’s important that you visit your doctor for a diagnosis.

A severe eye cold and other forms of conjunctivitis can cause inflammation in the cornea that may ultimately affect your vision or even lead to scarring if untreated. A prompt examination and treatment from your healthcare provider can prevent this from happening.

Your primary care doctor will usually be able to diagnose conjunctivitis based on your medical history, your symptoms, and an examination of your eye. In some cases, your doctor may collect some of the discharge from your eye to have it tested.

An ophthalmologist or optometrist can also diagnose conjunctivitis.

In most cases, an eye cold simply runs its course and clears up on its own in 7 to 10 days or less. But it can take as long as two or three weeks to clear up for some people.

An eye cold is very contagious, especially while you still have symptoms. Unlike bacterial conjunctivitis, an eye cold won’t respond to antibiotics. In fact, use of antibiotic eye drops can make viral conjunctivitis last longer.

Your treatment will focus on relieving your eye cold symptoms and preventing further spread of the infection.

Your doctor may recommend bathing your eyes in warm water, using warm or cold compresses, and sometimes using artificial tears.

If you wear contact lenses, you’ll need to remove them until your eye cold is gone. If your lenses are disposable, it’s best to discard the ones you’ve been wearing so you don’t reinfect your eyes. If you wear hard lenses, you’ll need to remove and disinfect them. Don’t put the lenses back in until you are completely clear of symptoms.

You should also discard any eye or face makeup, like foundation, you used before or while you had your eye cold.

Practicing good hygiene is the most effective way to prevent catching and spreading an eye cold.

  • Avoid touching your eyes with your hands.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Wash your hands before removing or putting in contact lenses.
  • Properly store and clean contact lenses.

These four tips will also help you avoid spreading infection to your eyes when you have a chest or head cold.

In addition, you also need to take care of certain household items you use routinely:

  • Change your towels and washcloths daily.
  • Don’t share towels and washcloths with anybody else.
  • Change your pillowcases regularly.
  • Wash items that have touched your face and eyes in hot, soapy water.

The best way to prevent spreading an eye cold is to stay at home until it has cleared.

When can you return to school or work after an eye cold?

As viral (and bacterial) conjunctivitis is highly contagious, most schools ask that you keep your child home until the infection has cleared up.

Employers are sometimes more flexible. If you have an eye cold, talk to your employer and see what their policy is on whether or not you need to be absent from work.

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of an eye cold, contact your doctor. They can determine the cause of the infection. Your doctor will be able to rule out serious conditions like a corneal abrasion or complications from STDs. If your doctor assures you that the cause of your symptoms is viral, then you should focus on relieving your symptoms to make yourself comfortable for the next few days to weeks.

Your eye cold should clear up on its own usually within a week, but sometimes it takes as long as three weeks. Make sure you practice good hygiene during this time to prevent the illness from spreading or worsening.