Pink eye itself is rarely fatal, but severe pink eye can cause corneal damage and vision loss.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is a condition in which the conjunctiva, the outer membrane of your eye, is inflamed and irritated.

Depending on the underlying cause, the inflammation and irritation may be related to an infection or irritant exposure.

Symptoms associated with pink eye, such as itchiness, pain, and discharge, can be uncomfortable and interfere with your daily activities.

However, while severe pink eye can cause corneal damage and vision loss, pink eye is rarely fatal.

Pink eye is not considered deadly overall.

In very extreme cases, serious infections that can cause pink eye may be fatal for people at high risk of complications if the underlying infection is not effectively treated.

Symptoms, side effects, and complications may also vary based on the following subtypes:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: As the name suggests, allergies cause this type of pink eye. It is not considered serious. You can treat symptoms with allergy medications, such as antihistamines and eye drops, as well as by avoiding triggers.
  • Irritant conjunctivitis: Also called chemical conjunctivitis, this type of pink eye develops when your eyes are directly exposed to chemicals, such as shampoo, bleach, or chlorine.
  • Viral conjunctivitis: Caused by viral infections, most cases are considered mild and will go away on their own within 7 to 14 days without long-term complications.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Depending on the severity, you may need antibiotics for this type of pink eye. It can take 2 to 14 days to clear up.
  • Protozoan conjunctivitis: Certain pathogens called Acanthamoeba can contaminate fresh water and homemade contact lens solutions. The organism can spread to the cornea, resulting in ulceration. From there, Acanthamoeba can enter the eyeball and directly access the central nervous system, especially in people who are immunocompromised.

Left untreated, bacterial conjunctivitis may be life threatening, but it’s rare. Death may be attributed to undiagnosed or untreated sepsis or meningitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis is also sometimes fatal in newborns.

However, according to a 2022 randomized clinical trial and meta-analysis involving children 6 months to 7 years old, topical antibiotic treatments significantly reduced symptoms and the overall duration of acute pink eye infections.

Overall, complications related to pink eye are uncommon. Ulcers and damage to your eyes are possible from untreated pink eye, but permanent vision loss is considered rare. It’s more likely to happen in young infants under 28 days old.

Another consideration is the type of pink eye you have. Pink eye from viral infections may clear on its own. Allergic conjunctivitis may improve with allergy treatments and avoiding your triggers.

Most side effects related to pink eye are linked to bacterial conjunctivitis. Left untreated, the underlying bacterial infection may worsen and possibly cause:

Irritant conjunctivitis may also cause serious complications, particularly if you experience severe chemical eye burns. Without prompt treatment, severe burns can lead to eye damage, scarring, or vision loss.

Common symptoms of pink eye include:

  • swelling of the white parts of your eyes and eyelids
  • pink to red coloring of the white parts of your eyes
  • tearing or discharge
  • crusting or glued eyelids (especially upon waking in the morning)
  • itchiness or burning
  • discomfort that may lead to the urge to rub your eyes constantly

It’s also important to consider symptom differences based on whether your pink eye is caused by the following:

  • Bacterial infection: If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, you will likely have thick pus from the eye and possibly a co-occurring ear infection.
  • Viral infection: With viral conjunctivitis, discharge may be watery like tears. You may have symptoms that start in one eye before spreading to the other. You may feel a swollen lymph node in front of your ear. This type of pink eye also tends to occur with colds and upper respiratory infections.
  • Allergies: Other allergy symptoms tend to develop with allergic pink eye, such as sneezing and scratchy throat. It can make your eyes itchy and watery.
  • Irritants: Sometimes exposure to irritants, such as strong chemicals, soaps, or perfumes, may cause the eyes to water and produce pus.

Contact a doctor to determine what type of pink eye you have. They can help determine whether you need treatments, such as:

  • antibiotics for bacterial pink eye
  • antiviral treatment (for serious cases of viral pink eye only)
  • allergy medications

Also consider speaking with a doctor if you already have a diagnosis of allergies and are experiencing eye symptoms that are interfering with your daily activities. You may have allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis affects up to 40% of people at some point in their lifetime.

A medical professional can help you determine your allergy triggers (such as pollen, dust, and animal dander) while recommending treatments to alleviate symptoms.

Seek immediate medical care if:

  • your newborn has symptoms of pink eye
  • your eyes have been exposed to toxic materials, such as alkali products (bleaches) or acids
  • you have severe swelling or pain
  • you’re experiencing blurry vision or light sensitivity
  • any of your symptoms worsen or don’t improve within 24 hours of taking antibiotics for bacterial conjunctivitis

Pink eye is a common eye condition. It is not considered deadly in most cases.

In very rare situations, infective conjunctivitis may be fatal if an underlying infection spreads and worsens without treatment. It depends on the specific pathogen and the person’s health.

While there are ways you can tell symptoms of infective and non-infective pink eye apart, it’s always best to consult with a doctor to be sure. They can help determine whether your pink eye is mild and will clear on its own, or whether you need further treatment.