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How to Treat Pink Eye

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How to Treat Pink Eye

writtenByWritten by: Andy Wong
Andy Wong

Andy Wong

Andy is the Chief Marketing Officer at PlushCare. He's passionate about advancing healthcare solutions and improving access to care via health technology.

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September 4, 2020 Read Time - 10 minutes

How to Treat Pink Eye

Treatment for pink eye varies depending on the cause. Allergic pink eye can be treated with antihistamines. Bacterial pink eye will require an antibiotic prescription from your doctor. If the cause of pink eye is environmental, you will have to do your best to make lifestyle changes in order to avoid irritants.

Because pink-eye can be caused by so many different things, it is important to consult with a doctor in order to receive the right diagnosis and treatment plan.

Your eyes can succumb to a wide range of diseases and ailments, some more serious than others. Pink eye can seem scary and annoying, but it’s one of the most common eye conditions in the world.

In the United States alone, doctors report about 3 million cases in adults and children every year. Pink eye is also thankfully easy to treat. Here’s some information about pink eye and some common methods of treatment for it.

Read: Get Pink Eye Treatment Online

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What is Pink Eye?

Pink eye refers to the inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the thin, mucus layer that lines the whites of your eyes (also known as the sclera) and the insides of your eyelids. This is also why pink eye is medically known as conjunctivitis.

The whites of your eyes contain thousands of blood vessels that are normally constricted and near invisible. Any irritating object or germ causes those blood vessels to dilate, making them larger and more noticeable. This gives your eyes a pink or reddish appearance.

Pink eye can happen to just about anyone of any age, but it is highly contagious. Conjunctivitis is most common among school-aged children and their caretakers (their teachers or daycare workers). It is most often spread through direct hand-to-eye contact, so you may touch a door knob contaminated with a pink eye virus or bacteria and touch your face, leading to pink eye. Pink eye can also come from large air droplets.

Viral Pink Eye

Pink eye has numerous causes, but when most doctors talk about pink eye, they are referring to its viral form. Viral pink eye is the most common form of the disease. Adenovirus, which is known for causing sore throats and upper respiratory infections, is the most common culprit in cases of viral conjunctivitis. Herpes simplex virus is a rarer cause of the disease. Other viruses that may cause pink eye include:

  • Varicella zoster virus (shingles and chicken pox)
  • Picornavirus
  • Poxvirus
  • Rubella virus
  • Rubeolla virus (measles)
  • Bacterial Pink Eye

Next to viruses, bacteria are the second most common source of pink eye infections, particularly in outpatient healthcare settings. It is just as contagious as viral pink eye, though it is not as common in kids older than 5 years of age. In the United States, the most common bacteria that cause pink eye include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • *Haemophilus influenzae
  • Moraxella catarrhalis
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae*

Other Causes of Pink Eye

Pink eye can also be caused by allergens like dust mites, animal dander, and seasonal pollen. However, allergic pink eye is often one of many symptoms of seasonal allergies, accompanied by other symptoms like sneezing, itchy throat, congestion, and runny nose.

Pink eye can also come from certain chemical or environmental irritants, which include:

  • Household cleaners
  • Smog
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Sprays
  • Industrial pollutants
  • Cosmetics

Neither of these forms of conjunctivitis are contagious.

Read: Antibiotics for Pink Eye

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


Common Symptoms of Pink Eye

Symptoms of pink eye can differ based on the cause and your personal health, but the most notable symptom is redness and swelling in the eyes and eyelids. Viral pink eye is often accompanied by symptoms reminiscent of the common cold, flu, or respiratory infections.

Viral conjunctivitis also features a thinner, more watery discharge, which can make it look more like you are crying or tearing up. The lymph nodes in front of your ears may also become inflamed, causing swelling and general tenderness.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is noted by a thicker discharge that can appear green, yellow, or grey in color. This discharge is often thick enough to paste your eyes shut while you sleep, which feels about as unpleasant as it sounds.

Bacterial conjunctivitis can also result in swelling in just the upper eyelids. This can cause your eyelids to appear droopy, a condition known as pseudoptosis.

Other general symptoms that you can expect from all forms of pink eye include:

  • Increased tears
  • Itchiness or burning in the eyes
  • General eye irritation
  • Greater sensitivity to light
  • A gritty feeling in your eyes
  • Constant sensation of feeling something in your eyes
  • Crusting in your eyelids and eyelashes

The Importance of Diagnosis

All good treatments for conjunctivitis should start with a proper diagnosis, which can effectively assessed via an online doctor visit. Aside from providing you with peace of mind, receiving a proper diagnosis can help the doctor determine exactly what is causing the conjunctivitis, allowing the doctor to prescribe more accurate and effective treatments and medications.

With most forms of pink eye, your doctor can easily diagnose your condition by examining you and running through your symptoms and personal health history. If your doctor suspects that your pink eye may be caused by herpes simplex or another more serious virus, they may order lab tests.

This usually involves taking a sample of the discharge from your eyes. For bacterial conjunctivitis, your doctor will likely take a sample of eye discharge and test it to determine the specific bacteria and the antibiotic to target it.

Effective Treatments for Pink Eye

The treatment for your pink eye depends on the type and cause of your condition. The bad news about viral conjunctivitis is that there generally isn’t a treatment for it (at least in its mild forms). The good news is that you generally should not need medication for viral conjunctivitis. With bed rest, the virus should run its course within seven to fourteen days.

For more serious forms of viral pink eye, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. The most well-known effective antiviral medication for pink eye is ganciclovir, which is applied topically. There are currently no oral antiviral medications that have been found to be effective.

Bacterial pink eye can be much more easily treated, though it’s not always required. Bacterial conjunctivitis will usually run its course within a couple weeks. However, with antibiotics, you can see drastic improvement within 24 hours. Antibiotics come in the form of eye drops and topical ointments.

Furthermore, if you exhibit other symptoms, like coughing, earache, and runny nose, that suggest the spread of the infection, your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic. Some of the most common and effective antibiotics that are prescribed include:

  • Besifloxacin (Besivance) – This antibiotic is administered in the form of eye drops and belongs to the quinolone class of drugs. It works by completely stopping the growth of bacteria.
  • Gatifloxacin (Zymar or Zymaxid) – Gatifloxacin is a type of fluoroquinolone antibiotic. It is administered as an eye drop and operates by eliminating the production of proteins that the bacteria need to survive.
  • Levofloxacin (Levaquin, Iquix, Quixin) – Levofloxacin is an eye drop that belongs to the quinolone class of antibiotics. It works by killing any sensitive bacteria.
  • Moxifloxacin (Avelox) – Moxifloxacin is a quinolone antibiotic. It is prescribed for general infection and works by stopping the growth of bacteria in your body. Moxifloxacin is taken orally.
  • Tobramycin (Tobrex) – Tobramycin is an eye drop specifically used for eye infections. It works by slowing the growth of certain bacteria or eliminating the bacteria entirely.
  • Erythromycin (Ilotycin) – Erythromycin belongs to a class of antibiotics known as macrolides. Macrolides are designed to reduce the production of proteins that bacteria need to survive, thereby killing or slowing their growth. It is administered orally.
  • ** Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) –** Used for treating various bacterial infections, ciprofloxacin is a fluoroquinolone that is administered orally. It can effectively fight various forms of bacterial infection, particularly anthrax.

Even though your symptoms may improve almost immediately, it’s important to take the full course of your antibiotics as recommended by your doctor. Not finishing your course may lead to a secondary infection.

For allergic pink eye, you’re your doctor may prescribe antihistamines, including loratidine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec). These can help to relieve symptoms but may only be necessary if you cannot avoid the allergens triggering your reaction. Don’t take antihistamines or give antihistamines to your child until you have first consulted your doctor.

Read: Pink Eye in Babies & Toddlers

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


Home Remedies for Pink Eye

Most cases of pink eye will clear up with rest at home, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be the most pleasant experience. If you don’t receive an antiviral or antibiotic medication, your doctor may prescribe or suggest over-the-counter eye drops. These can help to lubricate your eyes and soothe irritation and discomfort.

You should also consider using a cold or warm compress, whichever is more comfortable for you. Placing a compress over your closed eyes can help to reduce swelling and redness and soothe overall discomfort. However, make sure to use a clean compress each time. Warm, moist compresses can harbor bacteria, which may allow for the spread bacteria from one eye to the other.

It may also be beneficial to clean your eyes to help flush out bacteria and viruses and remove any crusty discharge. When cleaning your eye, use a clean towel, tissues, or wipes. Wipe from the inside of your eye (closest to the bridge of your nose) to the outside (the corner of your eye). Use a clean surface with each wipe. Wash your hands immediately after wiping your eyes to keep from spreading any bacteria.

If you wear contact lenses, it is a good idea to avoid them until your symptoms have completely cleared up. How long you should stay away from contacts depends on the cause of your pink eye, so talk to your doctor about when you can start wearing them again. Ask your doctor if you should also throw away your disposable contacts, lens case, or cleaning solution. If you don’t use disposable contacts, clean them thoroughly with a solution before using them again.

Along with these treatments, make sure you take the appropriate steps to prevent spreading pink eye to others. Stay at home instead of going to class or the office. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly. After your infection has passed, clean and disinfect parts of your home that may be contaminated with the virus or bacteria to prevent spread of the disease to potential visitors.

If you think you have symptoms of pink eye or a different ailment, see a top-tier doctor today with PlushCare and receive a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

Read more on our Pink Eye Series:


PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Center For Disease Control and Prevention. Pink Eye. Accessed on September 4, 2020.

Cleveland Clinic. Do I Have Pink Eye Or Allergies? Accessed on February 6, 2021 at . Pink Eye Remedies. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at

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