8 Treatments for Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, often goes away on its own. But these medicines and home remedies can help speed recovery.

Woman using eye drops

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Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, happens when the conjunctiva becomes swollen. The conjunctiva is the membrane lining the outside of the eyeball and the inside of the eyelid. Pink eye is very common and can be contagious, especially among young children.

Most cases of pink eye clear up on their own. But there are ways to help get rid of it—including medications and home remedies. Here's what you should know about treating pink eye.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye can cause the eye to turn pink or red, itch and burn, water, and ooze white, yellow, or green discharge. Other pink eye symptoms include:

  • Crusting along your eyelids or eyelashes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • A feeling like there's an object in your eye
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurry vision
  • A lump, which forms in front of your ear

There are two main types of infectious pink eye: bacterial and viral. Many of the symptoms are similar. Still, there are some differences. For instance, bacterial infections are common in young children, while viral infections are common in adolescents and adults. 

Although they both cause your eyes to look red, bacterial pink eye usually produces discharge from the eye. In contrast, viral conjunctivitis might cause clear tearing.

If you have pink eye, wash your hands frequently. Make sure not to share items, like pillowcases, towels, or makeup, so you don't spread it to others.

Although pink eye mostly clears up on its own, here are eight ways you can help treat it—including ointments, eye drops, and oral medications. 

Antibiotic Eye Drops

Antibiotic eye drops may help treat bacterial pink eye but not viral infections. Antibiotics may help shorten the length of infection, reduce complications, and reduce the spread to others.

But remember that while it might be tempting to ask for a prescription antibiotic to speed up the healing process, using one is often unnecessary. Bacterial pink eye may clear up on its own in as little as three to five days. In contrast, viral pink eye usually goes away in seven to 14 days.

A study published in 2017 in Ophthalmology found that about 60% of people receive prescription antibiotics even though the medicines are rarely necessary. Of those people, 20% filled prescriptions for antibiotic-steroid eye drops that can prolong or worsen the infection.

Antibiotic Eye Ointments

Antibiotic eye ointments, such as ciprofloxacin ophthalmic, can also help treat cases of bacterial pink eye.

“The only reason to treat [mild bacterial pink eye] is to shorten the course of disease and get kids back to school faster or adults back to work faster,” K. David Epley, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist, told Health.

If your infection lasts longer than five days, the discharge increases, or your eye severely hurts or is red, you may have a more serious case that warrants treatment. 

“These would be indications that something is awry,” said Dr. Epley.

Eyewashes

Viral and bacterial pink eye may cause mucus to build up in your eyes. Eyewashes may help flush away the mucus and some bacteria or viruses infecting your eyes.

Look for over-the-counter (OTC) products that say "eyewash" or "sterile saline." Sterile saline solutions typically used for contact lenses will do the trick. Just make sure you don't get the cleaner by mistake. 

"That would not be pleasant to get in your eye," said Dr. Epley. 

Artificial Tears

Artificial tears may help with the dryness and discomfort accompanying pink eye. Those treatments are readily available over the counter.

“They’re thicker [than eyewashes] and are more like a tear,” said Dr. Epley. “Because they coat the surface of the eye a little, they can be more comfortable. Your eyes don’t sting and burn so much when you’re blinking.”

But you have to be careful not to spread the infection when using artificial tears. 

“If you have one eye that has pink eye and if you’re putting tears in both eyes, you could contaminate the other eye,” Matthew Gorski, MD, an ophthalmologist at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y., told Health.

Make sure no one else uses the same bottle, either. While treating a pink eye infection, sharing products can easily spread the bacteria or virus.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are more effective for pink eye caused by allergies, which often come with significant itching, than other types. But antihistamines may also help if infectious pink eye is causing itchiness. Many different brands of antihistamine eye drops are available over the counter.

Generally, with pink eye, “treatment really depends on pinpointing the cause and drilling down into what it is,” Amy Coburn, MD, a clinical ophthalmologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, told Health.

“Mild redness and mild crusting in the morning can be watched from home,” said Dr. Gorski. “However, if you ever have pain, significant discomfort, any change of vision, or sensitivity to light, you should go see an eye [healthcare provider].”

Antiviral Medications

Most cases of viral pink eye just need to run their course. But a handful of viruses can cause pink eye symptoms that you can treat with prescription antiviral medications. Those medicines may come in eye drops, ointments, or pills.

“Antivirals are something we do use if we think it’s the right virus, [but] there are only a few viruses we can treat that way,” said Dr. Epley. “The herpes family is one we have effective medications for.”

For example, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which causes chickenpox and shingles, is a herpes virus. VZV may also cause pink eye.

 “It’s often extremely painful, and you can have decreased vision and sensitivity to light,” said Dr. Gorki. That type of pink eye often comes with a blistering rash around the eye and forehead, added Dr. Gorki. See a healthcare provider immediately if you have any of those symptoms.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all adults aged 50 or older get a shingles vaccine to prevent shingles from affecting the eye. Shingles can cause pink eye and, in rare cases, damage to the cornea that may require a transplant.

Wet Compresses

Putting a wet compress over your eyes won’t prevent pink eye. But the cooling effect can help ease pink eye symptoms. Use wet compresses carefully, though. Otherwise, you risk infecting your other eye or someone else.

Putting ice cubes and a piece of gauze in a zip-top plastic bag is even better than using a gel pack, ice pack, or washcloth. You must wash those materials between uses to avoid spreading the infection.

Let the gauze get cold, press it on your eye for 30–60 seconds, then throw it away. Pop a fresh piece of gauze into the same plastic bag as needed. 

“You can keep putting new gauze pads in the sandwich bags because [the bags] haven’t touched the eye,” said Dr. Epley.

“I tell patients to do what feels good for the eyes,” added Dr. Gorski. So, if you prefer warmer compresses, they’re fair game, too. 

Avoid Wearing Contacts

“Anytime you’re having any change in your eyes, immediately take your contacts out,” said Dr. Gorski.

Talk to a healthcare provider before using contacts again after the pink eye is gone. You can toss disposable lenses. But t the very least, you must sterilize non-disposable contacts before wearing them again.

“You don’t have to throw them out. But put them through a super-sterilization process, not just the simple overnight cleaning but deeper cleaning,” said Dr. Epley.

Take similar measures with eye makeup if you get pink eye. 

“Certainly, if you wear makeup, you don’t want to put it on again,” said Dr. Coburn. So, toss all your old eye products and makeup once the infection is gone and start with new ones.

A Quick Review

Pink eye happens when the membrane lining the outside of the eyeball and the inside of the eyelid becomes swollen. Most commonly, symptoms include pink or red eyes that itch and burn, watering, and oozing white, yellow, or green discharge. 

Depending on the type of infection, several treatments are available—including ointments, eye drops, and oral medications. Although, most cases clear up on their own. Consult a healthcare provider if your symptoms persist or become worse.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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