Pink eye (conjunctivitis) can cause a variety of symptoms. Eye redness and irritation are some of the most common ones, but there can be other tell-tale symptoms, too. These can vary depending on the cause.

A woman rubs her hands over her eyes, possibly due to irritation, itching, or burning caused by pink eye (conjunctivitis). Share on Pinterest
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Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye, is a condition that causes redness, swelling, and irritation in or around the eye or eyelid. While children are more likely to get pink eye than adults, it can affect people of any age.

The most common cause of pink eye is a virus — the same one that causes the common cold. Pink eye can also be caused by several different strains of bacteria. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious and can spread easily from one person to another.

In some cases, pink eye can be caused by an allergic reaction to irritants in the environment, such as pollen, pet dander, chemicals, or cigarette smoke. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

Read on to learn more about what pink eye feels like, how it’s treated, and what you should do if you develop symptoms.

The symptoms of pink eye can vary depending on the cause.

In most cases, though, the whites of your eyes will likely be red or pink in color. Your eyes may also feel irritated and have a gritty feeling, as if there’s an eyelash or a grain of sand in your eye. It’s also common for your eyes to be watery and sensitive to light.

Other symptoms of pink eye can include:

  • itching, irritation, or a burning sensation in the eye
  • puffy or swollen eyelids
  • increased tearing
  • thick, sticky discharge from the eye
  • crusty eyelids, especially when you wake up
  • contact lens discomfort, or contacts that don’t stay in place

Symptoms by cause

  • Pink eye caused by a virus: This type may be accompanied by cold symptoms. The discharge from your eyes may be watery (instead of a thick mucus) and your symptoms may begin with just one eye.
  • Pink eye caused by bacterial infection: This type may produce thick discharge (pus) in the eye. Your eyes may be sore and red. Bacterial conjunctivitis may also occur along with an ear infection or strep throat.
  • Pink eye caused by allergens: This type often affects both eyes at once. You may also have other allergy symptoms, like a runny nose, sneezing, or asthma. Allergen-related pink eye tends to lead to watery tears and intense itching.

Although pink eye can often get better on its own, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diagnosis. They can do tests to determine the cause of your pink eye and, if it’s due to a bacterial infection, can prescribe antibiotic eye drops to help speed up your recovery.

Also, pink eye symptoms can be similar to other eye conditions that may be more serious. It’s best to be cautious and to make sure you don’t have another type of eye disease.

Pink eye caused by viruses and bacteria can be highly contagious and easily pass to others. If you’re diagnosed with pink eye, be sure to practice good hygiene habits. Wash your hands frequently, especially when you cough, blow your nose, or touch your eyes or face. Make sure you don’t share personal items, like towels or eye makeup.

Yes. Some cases of pink eye will get better over time without treatment. This can vary depending on the cause.

  • Viral conjunctivitis: Pink eye caused by a virus usually doesn’t require treatment. In most cases, your body will fight off the virus and the pink eye will go away in time. However, if your symptoms don’t start getting better within about 5 days, or if they get worse, it’s important to follow up with your doctor. You can ease eye discomfort with home remedies, like gently placing a cool, wet washcloth on the affected eye as needed.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: If pink eye is caused by bacteria, it may clear up on its own without antibiotic treatment if you have mild symptoms. However, you’ll want to get medical attention if your eyes have pus-like discharge or if your immune system is compromised.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Pink eye caused by an allergen will typically get better once you’re no longer around the allergen. Allergy medications and antihistamine eye drops can help relieve symptoms.

With viral and bacterial pink eye, it can take 1 to 2 weeks for pink eye to clear up. Your pink eye will still be contagious while it heals, though.

Treatment for pink eye depends on the cause.

As mentioned, pink eye caused by a virus usually doesn’t require treatment and will often clear up on its own in a couple of weeks. However, antiviral medication may be needed if you have a more serious form of viral conjunctivitis. This may be the case if pink eye is caused by the herpes simplex virus or the varicella-zoster virus.

Antibiotic eye drops can treat cases of pink eye caused by a bacterial infection. These eye drops can be prescribed by your doctor or an ophthalmologist. Antibiotic eye drops will not help treat pink eye caused by viruses or allergies.

Your doctor may prescribe topical steroids if you have a severe case of conjunctivitis. This type of medication can help reduce inflammation. Topical steroids are commonly prescribed as combination drops with antibiotics in cases of severe bacterial conjunctivitis.

Your doctor may suggest using antihistamine eye drops for pink eye that’s caused by allergies. These drops won’t cure pink eye but, instead, may help relieve symptoms, such as itchiness and swelling.

Even if you have a mild case of pink eye, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. They can give you an accurate diagnosis, prescribe the right treatment if necessary, and also make sure you don’t have a more serious eye condition.

Pink eye can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or allergies. The symptoms of pink eye can vary depending on what caused it, but common symptoms include eye redness and a gritty feeling in your eye. It’s also common for your eyes to be puffy, watery, itchy, or irritated.

Although pink eye can often get better on its own, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diagnosis and to get the right treatment, if necessary.