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Pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. The lining of the eye is usually clear. If irritation or infection occurs, the lining becomes red and swollen. See pictures of a normal eye and an eye with conjunctivitis.
Pink eye is very common. It usually is not serious and goes away in 7 to 10 days without medical treatment.
Most cases of pink eye are caused by:
Viral and bacterial pink eye are contagious and spread very easily. Since most pink eye is caused by viruses for which there is usually no medical treatment, preventing its spread is important. Poor handwashing is the main cause of the spread of pink eye. Sharing an object, such as a face cloth or towel, with a person who has pink eye can spread the infection. For more information, see Prevention.
Viral pink eye is often caused by an adenovirus, which is a common respiratory virus that can also cause a sore throat or upper respiratory infection. The herpes virus can also cause viral pink eye.
Symptoms of viral pink eye include:
Viral pink eye symptoms usually last 5 to 7 days but may last up to 3 weeks and can become ongoing or chronic.
Pink eye may be more serious if you:
Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pink eye, so it is important to prevent the spread of the infection. Pink eye caused by a herpes virus, which is rare, can be treated with an antiviral medicine. Home treatment of viral pink eye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
People with pink eye should stay at home until their symptoms are gone.
An infection may develop when bacteria enter the eye or the area around the eye. Some common infections that cause pink eye include:
Symptoms of bacterial pink eye include:
Bacterial pink eye may cause more drainage than viral pink eye. Bacterial infections usually last 7 to 10 days without antibiotic treatment and 2 to 4 days with antibiotic treatment. The person can usually return to daycare, school, or work 24 hours after an antibiotic has been started if symptoms have improved. Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause pink eye.
Red eye is a more general term that includes not only pink eye but also many other problems that cause redness on or around the eye, not just the lining. Pink eye is the main cause of red eye. Red eye has other causes, including:
Swollen, red eyelids may also be caused by styes, a lump called a chalazion, inflammation of the eyelid (blepharitis), or lack of tears (dry eyes). For more information, see the topics Styes and Chalazia and Eyelid Problems (Blepharitis).
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Symptoms of serious illness may include:
Symptoms of serious illness in a baby may include the following:
Pain in adults and older children
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Home treatment for pink eye will help reduce your pain and keep your eye free of drainage. If you wear contacts, remove them and wear glasses until your symptoms have gone away completely. Thoroughly clean your contacts and storage case.
Cold compresses or warm compresses (whichever feels best) can be used. If an allergy is the problem, a cool compress may feel better. If the pink eye is caused by an infection, then a warm, moist compress may soothe your eye and help reduce redness and swelling. Warm, moist compresses can spread infection from one eye to the other. Use a different compress for each eye, and use a clean compress for each application.
When cleaning your eye, wipe from the inside (next to the nose) toward the outside. Use a clean surface for each wipe so that drainage being cleaned away is not rubbed back across the eye. If tissues or wipes are used, make sure they are put in the trash and are not allowed to sit around. If face cloths are used to clean the eye, put them in the laundry right away so that no one else picks them up or uses them. After wiping your eye, wash your hands to prevent the pink eye from spreading.
After pink eye has been diagnosed:
For pink eye related to allergies, antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), may help relieve your symptoms. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
If you wear contacts, be sure to remove your contacts when your eye problem starts.
Pink eye is spread through contact with the eye drainage, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the pink eye. Touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other eye or an object when you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria can be spread.
The following tips help prevent the spread of pink eye.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Adaptation Date: 5/7/2021
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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