How Long Does Pink Eye Last? An Eye Doctor Explains

It all depends on what's causing it—and how quickly it's treated.

If you’ve never had pink eye, consider yourself lucky. The condition (which is actually called conjunctivitis) occurs when the eye becomes inflamed due to an irritant, optometrist Neil Satija, OD, from Green Eye Care in Harlem, New York, tells Health—and it’s extremely uncomfortable, to say the least.

Pink eye, however, is actually one of the most common and treatable eye conditions in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while it’s often only talked about in relation to children, it can affect people of all ages.

Because it’s so common, lots of things can cause pink eye, Dr. Satija says. The most common are viral and bacterial infections, allergies, dry eyes, autoimmune disorders, and contact lens over-wear.

According to the CDC, figuring out the exact cause of pink eye can be tricky because the symptoms are often the same, regardless of the cause, and include:

  • Redness or swelling of the white of the eye or inside the eyelid
  • Increased amount of tears
  • Clear, yellow, white, or green eye discharge
  • Itchy, irritated, or burning eyes
  • A gritty feeling in the eye
  • Crusting of the eyelids or eyelashes
  • Contacts that feel uncomfortable or do not stay in place

So how long does pink eye last?

Nobody wants to walk around with pink eye longer than they have to. But if it’s treated quickly, it shouldn’t last long. “It can last from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, depending on the cause,” Dr. Satija says. And if you can establish the cause, you can get the right treatment sooner, he adds.

“Artificial tears can help with all types of pink eye since it lubricates the eye and can help wash out any irritants,” Dr. Satija says. “For infectious conjunctivitis, antibiotics and antivirals are commonly used. For allergic conjunctivitis, antihistamine or mast cell stabilizer eye drops are common treatments. For other types of inflammation, steroid eye drops may be used to reduce the swelling.”

Optimum hygiene is also crucial to stop viral or bacterial pink eye from spreading to somebody else—or even to your other eye. (On the other hand, pink eye caused by allergens or irritant is not contagious.) So, make good hygiene a priority by washing your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching or rubbing your eyes, and avoiding sharing makeup, contact lenses and containers, and glasses.

At the first sign of pink eye, Dr. Satija recommends using artificial tears. But if you experience pain, light sensitivity, discharge, stickiness, or your pink eye hasn’t improved within 24 hours, get yourself to your eye doctor to get the right treatment to restore your peepers to their former clear-eyed glory.

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