How long pink eye lasts depends on which type you have and how you treat it. Most of the time, pink eye clears up within a few days to two weeks.
There are several types of pink eye, including viral and bacterial:
- Viral pink eye is caused by viruses like adenovirus and herpes virus. It usually clears up without treatment in 7 to 14 days.
- Bacterial pink eye is caused by an infection with bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pneumonia. Antibiotics should start clearing up the infection within 24 hours of starting to use them. Even if you don’t use antibiotics, mild bacterial pink eye almost always improves within 10 days.
Pink eye is usually contagious for as long as you have symptoms like redness, tearing, and crusting. These symptoms should improve within 3 to 7 days.
Using antibiotics for a bacterial infection clears up symptoms faster, but won’t be useful for treating viral infections or other causes of pink eye.
Viral vs. bacterial
A virus that causes viral pink eye can spread from your nose to your eyes, or you can catch it when someone sneezes or coughs and the droplets come in contact with your eyes.
Bacteria cause bacterial pink eye. Usually the bacteria spreads to your eyes from your respiratory system or skin. You can also catch bacterial pink eye if you:
- touch your eye with unclean hands
- apply makeup that’s been contaminated with bacteria
- share personal items with someone who has pink eye
Both types of pink eye often start during an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold (virus) or sore throat (virus or bacteria).
Both viral and bacterial pink eye cause the same general symptoms, including:
- pink or red color in the white of the eyes
- itchy or scratchy feeling in the eye
- burning or irritation
- crusting of the eyelids or lashes, especially in the morning
- discharge from the eye
Here are a few ways to tell which type of pink eye you have.
Viral pink eye:
- usually starts in one eye but can spread to the other eye
- starts with a cold or other respiratory infection
- causes watery discharge from the eye
Bacterial pink eye:
- can start with a respiratory infection or an ear infection
- affects one or both eyes
- causes a thick discharge (pus) that makes the eyes stick together
Your healthcare provider can tell whether you’ve got a bacterial or a viral infection by taking a sample of the discharge from your eye and sending it to a lab for testing.
Treating pink eye
Most cases of bacterial and viral pink eye will get better without treatment in a few days to two weeks. To relieve symptoms in the meantime:
- Use artificial tears or lubricating eye drops to prevent dryness. (Throw out the bottle once your infection has cleared so that you don’t reinfect yourself.)
- Hold cold packs or warm, moist compresses to your eye to bring down swelling.
- Clean the discharge from your eyes with a wet washcloth or tissue.
For more severe pink eye, your healthcare provider can prescribe medicine:
- Viral pink eye that’s caused by the herpes simplex or varicella-zoster virus may respond to antiviral medicines.
- Antibiotic eye drops or ointment can help clear up severe cases of bacterial pink eye.
To avoid reinfecting yourself, take these steps once pink eye clears up:
- Throw out any eye makeup or makeup applicators you used while you were infected.
- Throw out disposable contact lenses and solution you used while you had pink eye.
- Clean and disinfect hard contact lenses, eyeglasses, and cases.
Pink eye is very contagious. To avoid catching or transmitting the infection:
- Wash your hands often throughout the day with soap and warm water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Wash your hands before and after you use eye drops or put in contact lenses. Also wash your hands if you come into contact with an infected person’s eyes, clothes, or other personal items.
- Don’t touch or rub your eyes.
- Don’t share personal items such as towels, blankets, pillowcases, makeup, or makeup brushes.
- Wash bedding, washcloths, and towels in hot water after you use them.
- Thoroughly clean contact lenses and glasses.
- If you have pink eye, stay home from school or work until your symptoms clear up.
When to see your doctor
Most cases of mild pink eye get better with or without treatment and don’t cause any long-term problems. Severe pink eye can cause swelling in the cornea — the clear layer in the front of your eye. Treatment can prevent this complication.
See your healthcare provider if:
- your eyes are very painful
- you have blurred vision, sensitivity to light, or other vision problems
- your eyes are very red
- your symptoms don’t go away after a week without medicine or after 24 hours on antibiotics
- your symptoms get worse
- you have a weakened immune system from a condition like cancer or HIV or from medicine you take
Pink eye is a common eye infection that’s often caused by bacteria or viruses. Most of the time pink eye is mild and will improve on its own, with or without treatment. More serious cases may need treatment with antibiotics or antiviral medicines. Practicing good hand-washing hygiene and not sharing personal items can prevent the spread of pink eye.