Pink eye can cause painful eye irritation and redness, but it will usually clear up in a few weeks. You might consider visiting urgent care or a walk-in clinic if you’re unable to go to your primary care doctor.

Pink eye is a condition that causes irritation or inflammation in your eye. Officially known as conjunctivitis, pink eye earned its name for the pink to reddish color the inflammation causes in the white part of your eye.

Whether you need immediate medical attention for pink eye depends on your symptoms and their severity. This article covers when to consider going to urgent care or another healthcare facility to get help for pink eye.

You can go to an urgent care facility or walk-in clinic for virtually any condition. Urgent care centers and walk-in clinics are designed to treat infections, injuries, and minor medical conditions that are not life threatening yet still require medical treatment or prescription medication.

Where to go for care

As a general rule, emergency rooms are designed to handle medical emergencies, which might include traumatic injuries, heart attack or stroke, or symptoms that affect breathing or circulation.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be turned away from the emergency room for a non-life-threatening medical issue like pink eye. But you might have to wait a while to be seen. In the emergency room, people with life threatening conditions or who are the sickest are treated first.

On the other hand, an urgent care or walk-in clinic can be helpful when you need treatment outside of the working hours of your doctor’s office or when you’re in pain and are seeking relief. These medical facilities can also be helpful for receiving a diagnosis and getting treatment for non-life-threatening conditions like strep throat and pink eye.

If you’re not experiencing a life threatening condition and your symptoms are relatively mild or tolerable, consider making an after-hours or early morning call to your primary care doctor’s office.

Same-day appointments might be available, and with most health insurance plans, a primary care visit is typically more affordable than a visit to the emergency room.

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Check with your health insurance plan for coverage limits if you plan on visiting a walk-in clinic or urgent care.

No, pink eye does not always require medical treatment or a visit to your doctor’s office.

Pink eye caused by allergies usually isn’t contagious. Limited treatments are available for viral pink eye. In most cases, viral pink eye resolves on its own within 1 to 2 weeks.

In addition, bacterial pink eye usually clears up on its own in time without antibiotics or prescription medications.

Some adults might choose to skip a doctor’s visit for pink eye. But some schools and daycares might have policies concerning children with untreated pink eye, as it can be very contagious. In most cases, children will be required to stay home until they no longer have symptoms.

If your child does not have a fever or any other symptoms, they might be able to return to school.

However, if your child’s school requires proof of medical treatment or a diagnosis before returning, a visit to an urgent care, walk-in clinic, or a call to your child’s pediatrician are all good places to start.

Pink eye can usually be diagnosed with a simple physical exam at a doctor’s office. To diagnose pink eye, the doctor will:

  • determine if your eye appears unusually pink, red, or purple
  • use topical fluorescein dye to see if there are changes to the corneal surface; this is also helpful for diagnosing an infection with herpesvirus
  • check for a palpable lymph node in front of the ear
  • ask about the intensity of your eye discomfort
  • ask about any other symptoms you’re experiencing

If your healthcare team suspects that your pink eye was caused by a bacterial infection, you might be prescribed antibiotic eye drops or ointments.

Bacterial pink eye will usually clear up in 2 to 3 weeks without antibiotics. But these medications can cut recovery time by about a week, reduce complications, and help prevent transmission to others.

Viral pink eye can’t be treated with antibiotics. It will go away on its own over the course of a couple of weeks without treatment. For certain types of viral infections, such as those caused by the herpes simplex virus, there may be antiviral medications that can help you recover faster and prevent complications.

Aside from these medications, the primary treatment for pink eye is supportive or comfort care. This might include:

  • hot or cold compresses
  • over-the-counter pain relievers
  • lubricating eye drops

Antihistamines and decongestants might also help relieve symptoms of pink eye, especially if it’s caused by allergies.

There is no rush to seek treatment for pink eye. If you need proof of a diagnosis or treatment for work or school, seeing a doctor quickly can be helpful. Otherwise, there isn’t a need for urgency unless you experience any of the following:

You might want to seek treatment more quickly if you have an underlying condition that could increase your risk of developing complications. This includes conditions or treatments that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, or cancer.

Pink eye takes time to recover from, whether or not you receive medical treatment. Expect your pink eye symptoms to 1 to 2 weeks or longer without antibiotic or antiviral treatment.

If you saw a doctor for pink eye and they prescribed medications like antibiotics, be sure to call or return to the urgent care or walk-in clinic if your symptoms don’t improve or if they get worse within the first few days of starting treatment.

Pink eye will usually clear up in a few weeks, with or without medical treatment. Telephone nurse lines, health apps, urgent cares, and walk-in clinics are effective care options if you’re unable able to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor.