You thought your eye was just bloodshot from being tired (hello, pregnancy exhaustion), but now it’s also itchy, throbbing, and — ugh — crusty. That means you have pink eye, right?
Probs. Pink eye, aka conjunctivitis, is pretty common and thankfully, nearly always harmless. But since being pregnant can complicate even mild illnesses, you might be nervous about treating pink eye while expecting.
The good news is pink eye is super treatable during pregnancy and doesn’t pose much of a threat to you or your baby. The bad news is the same as it is for everyone else: Your eye is going to look and feel like a hot mess for a few days.
Here’s how to know if you have pink eye, plus how you can treat and prevent it during pregnancy.
Pink eye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a membrane that covers the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelid. The inflammation is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection, but not always: Sometimes, the inflammation happens because of allergies, abrasions or injuries, or irritants.
The common symptoms of pink eye include:
- pink or red coloration of the whites of the eye — hence the name
- gritty or rough feeling in the eye, like something is stuck there
- itching and irritation in the eye or on the eyelid
- pain and swelling
- discharge, either clear and watery, or goopy and yellow
- crusty buildup along the edge of the eyelid
- sensitivity to light
You may have several of these symptoms or only one or two, and they can range from mild to moderate to severe. It takes anywhere from a couple of days to 2 weeks for pink eye to go away, depending on what type you have.
There’s nothing unique about pregnancy that causes pink eye to occur. The causes are the same as they are for nonpregnant people. But you are more susceptible to illness during pregnancy. So, you might find yourself with an unfortunate case of flaming red eye more often than you’re used to.
Here are the typical reasons why conjunctivitis happens:
The common cold, influenza, and even COVID-19 can cause conjunctivitis as the virus runs its course. Since viruses trigger an inflammatory response in your body, it’s not surprising that many common viruses can cause inflammation in your eyes. You may notice pink eye symptoms before, during, or right after a viral infection.
Sometimes, pink eye is caused by bacteria rather than a viral infection. This happens commonly in people who wear contact lenses improperly. But it can also be caused by touching your eyes after touching fecal matter, infected respiratory mucus, or even the bacteria that causes some sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Seasonal allergies as well as allergies to dust, mold, and pet dander can cause temporary eye inflammation that looks and feels a lot like other types of pink eye. Typically, allergic pink eye symptoms are less severe, causing watery discharge, redness, grittiness, and itching — but not crusting or oozing.
We’ve all been there: One minute you’re sitting peacefully on the beach, and the next minute a gust of wind picks up and blows sand right into your eye. Your eyes are pretty good at defending themselves, but sometimes small debris gets in. A foreign body in your eye can cause an allergic reaction or an eye injury, both of which can lead to conjunctivitis.
Abrasions and injuries
Whether you scratched your cornea from rubbing excessively at your eye or found yourself on the receiving end of a stray elbow to the face, abrasions and injuries can cause inflammation, redness, and tearing. They can also leave a window of opportunity for debris or bacteria to sneak in and irritate or infect your eye.
Unless you know for sure that your pink eye is just from environmental allergies, schedule a visit to your doctor. For one thing, it’s pretty hard for people to tell the difference between viral and bacterial conjunctivitis. And if your inflammation is due to an injury, scratch, or foreign body in your eye, you’ll want to have that evaluated and treated to prevent long-term damage.
You don’t need to head to your OB-GYN’s office, necessarily. You can go to your regular primary care professional or even an eye doctor, if you have one.
Just make sure you tell them you’re pregnant so they can treat you safely. If they prescribe a medication or recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) product for your pink eye, it’s a good idea to call your OB-GYN and make sure it’s OK to use during pregnancy.
You can’t treat viral pink eye with allergy eye drops or just wait out a bacterial infection. You have to match your specific type of pink eye with the appropriate treatment. There are also at-home remedies that can ease some of your discomfort, whatever type of conjunctivitis you have. Here are some options.
Medicated eye drops
If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, then you’ll need antibiotic eye drops to get rid of the infection. These drops usually make you feel better pretty quickly — within just a few days — but it might take a week or so to get fully back to your normal.
The majority of antibiotic eye drops are safe for you and your baby, but make sure your prescribing doctor knows you’re pregnant — and when in doubt, run the prescription by your OB-GYN.
If your pink eye is caused by a virus, antibiotic eye drops won’t help. But some of the other treatments below might, so check them out.
If your pink eye is thanks to allergies, you may be able to use an antihistamine eye drop like ketotifen (Zaditor, Alaway) on a limited basis. But these types of allergy eye drops are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Artificial tears are a great way to soothe inflamed and irritated eyes: They aren’t medicated, can usually be used with contacts, and can be applied as often as needed to combat dry, itchy, or irritated eyes.
If you have a nonbacterial type of conjunctivitis and need relief while you recover, ask your doctor about using artificial tears to soothe some of your symptoms. Since they’re just moisturizing drops, they’re safe to use during pregnancy.
If you’re in a lot of pain from your case of conjunctivitis, you can take Tylenol to make yourself more comfortable — note that ibuprofen isn’t generally recommended in pregnancy.
An oral antihistamine may also help relieve allergy-induced pink eye. Claritin and Zyrtec are typically considered safe to use during pregnancy.
These remedies won’t cure your pink eye, but they can relieve some of your symptoms and may speed up your recovery time if your pink eye isn’t bacterial but viral or irritant-induced.
- Warm or cool compress. No matter your preferred temperature, a wet compress that’s either cool or warm can relieve some of your discomfort.
- Gentle cleansing. Lightly soaked cotton pads or balls can remove any crusty buildup or discharge that’s irritating your eyes or making your symptoms worse.
- Skip the contacts. If you normally wear contacts, switch to your glasses until your inflammation has fully cleared.
- Green tea bag soaks. It’s a little unconventional, but applying wet bags of green tea to your eyes can reduce inflammation, too, thanks to the antioxidants found in the tea. Steep the bags in hot water for 20 minutes, then chill them in the fridge — just make sure to discard them when you’re done.
These remedies are safe for pregnancy, but remember, they’re not going to eliminate your conjunctivitis. They can, however, make it easier to wait out the inflammation. Nonbacterial types of pink eye usually self-resolve with minimal treatment within 7 to 14 days.
It depends on what type of pink eye you have. Viral and bacterial pink eye are super contagious, and can easily be spread by touching the infected eye and then touching other people or surfaces. It can also be spread by sharing commonly used objects, like pillows and blankets, and by coughing and sneezing.
All other types of pink eye are not contagious, though. So if your pink eye has been caused by allergies, irritants, or injuries of some kind, you don’t have to worry about spreading it to anyone else. And you can’t spread it to your babe in the womb.
The single best way to prevent pink eye is by maintaining good hand hygiene. Avoiding touching your face — especially your eyes — until after you’ve washed your hands with soap and water will go a long way toward reducing the amount of dirt and germs you can transfer to your eyes, possibly leading to infection.
If you’re pregnant, you may also want to take a few additional steps to avoid pink eye. Remember, you’re more susceptible to infection, and besides, who needs pink eye when you’ve already got morning sickness and Braxton-Hicks contractions?
You can avoid sharing things like towels and bedding with other people, avoid environmental irritants that trigger your allergies, take extra care with your contact lenses if you wear them, and steer clear of people who are sick.
Pink eye during pregnancy is a huge annoyance, but it’s not dangerous to you or your baby.
That said, talk with your doctor or eye doctor for pink eye unless you know for sure it’s caused by allergies. Make sure to let them know you’re pregnant so they can recommend safe treatment options.
In the meantime, keep in mind that viral and bacterial pink eye are extremely contagious, so if you’ve got people you could spread it to, wash your hands — like, a lot!