Pink eye is known for the dark pink to red color that happens from inflammation and irritation in the white part of your eye. You can also experience pus or watery discharge.

an eye with conjunctivitisShare on Pinterest
Getty Images

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a condition where the moist clear tissue covering the eyeball and inner eyelids becomes infected or inflamed.

It’s not just irritating and sometimes painful — it can also be contagious.

In this article, you’ll learn how to identity pink eye, which treatment options are available, and what steps you should take to prevent passing this eye infection on to other people.

Conjunctivitis is the medical term for this eye condition. It’s called pink eye specifically for the way the white park of your eye turns pink from irritation and inflammation. If you were able to peel away the inflamed area, you’d discover the underlying eyeball was white and not inflamed.

It usually appears with these visible symptoms:

  • redness in the white part of your eye
  • watery discharge
  • sticky mucus or pus
  • crusting around your eye
  • swelling or puffiness of your eyelid

There are also symptoms that you won’t be able to see but feel. These include:

  • pain
  • stinging
  • burning
  • blurry vision
  • sensitivity to light

Different types of pink eye can also cause additional symptoms:

  • Viral pink eye: This type of pink eye is caused by a viral infection. It’s very contagious and spreads easily in crowded places. It causes burning, redness, and watery discharge. You may also develop a runny nose or sore throat.
  • Bacterial pink eye: Bacterial pink eye is caused by a bacterial infection, and it’s also very contagious. With this type of pink eye, your eye will be very sore and may produce a sticky pus. This type of pink eye is sometimes caused by the same bacteria that causes strep throat, so you may develop symptoms of a strep infection as well.
  • Allergic pink eye: Caused by allergic irritation, this type of pink eye isn’t contagious, but it can make your eyes red, puffy, watery, and extremely itchy.

You can read more here on pink eye in general. But these are some examples of how pink eye can look.

Pink eye is often diagnosed on its appearance and symptoms alone.

Your doctor may offer you treatment based on the appearance of your eye and what symptoms you’re experiencing. Viral conjunctivitis is often accompanied by swollen lymph nodes in front of the ears.

It can be difficult to differentiate between a viral or bacterial cause, but there’s no specific treatment for a viral infection outside of comfort measures and time.

In some cases, your doctor may take a swab or sample of the discharge from your eye for testing to identify a specific virus or bacteria.

Most cases of pink eye will go away on their own, but they can take time to heal. No matter the cause, pink eye can take up to 3 weeks to resolve completely, but this can happen with or without treatment in most cases.

In certain cases, treatment can help speed healing or prevent the spread of the infection to others. The treatment of pink eye varies based on the individual cause.

Viral pink eye

Viral pink eye has no real treatment other than time.

It might take a while, but viral pink eye should go away on its own in 7 to 14 days. Severe cases may take up to 3 weeks to clear up completely. In cases where a specific viral cause has been identified, there may be some antiviral medications available.

This isn’t true for all viruses, but there’s medication for specific viruses like herpes simplex virus or varicella-zoster virus.

Bacterial pink eye

Bacterial pink eye can sometimes improve in 2 to 5 days with no treatment at all, but severe cases can take up to 3 weeks to clear up completely.

If you see a doctor for your pink eye, you may be given antibiotic ointment or eye drops that may help clear the infection faster and prevent spreading pink eye to others.

Allergic pink eye

Allergic pink eye can come and go on its own based on what triggers your allergic reaction.

Lubricating or soothing eye drops may help during inflammatory flare-ups, but you should work with your healthcare team to find a treatment plan that can help to control your underlying allergies.

How long does pink eye last?

Different types of pink eye can clear up in about a week, but stubborn or severe infections can take up to 3 weeks to resolve completely.

Do eye drops work for pink eye?

Your healthcare team may offer you antibacterial eye drops or ointment if your pink eye was caused by a bacterial infection. Antibiotics will not work if you have pink eye caused by allergies or a virus.

What causes pink eye?

Pink eye can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It can also be triggered by an allergic reaction, such as a flare-up of seasonal allergies or exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke.

Pink eye is usually known for the dark pink to red color caused by inflammation to the moist tissue covering the eyeball. Different causes of pink eye, like a virus or bacteria, can also produce other symptoms like pus or watery discharge.

Consult your healthcare team if the irritation becomes severe or affects your vision, or if it doesn’t clear up after a few weeks.