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Red, Irritated, Watering Eyes? Chances Are You’ve Got Pink Eye

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on May 30, 2020.

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Is Pink Eye Contagious?

Did you wake up with a bloodshot eye with your eyelids stuck together? You might have pink eye.

  • Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is highly contagious if it is caused by a bacterial or viral infection (infectious conjunctivitis).
  • Infectious conjunctivitis is more common in children than in adults as bacteria and viruses are easily spread among children when they play.
  • Pink eye generally remains contagious from when the symptoms first appear, while the eye is watering and producing a discharge, and for about two weeks, as long as the eyes are red.

Pink eye caused by irritants, allergens or environmental factors is not contagious.

How Did I Get Pink Eye?

Not sure how you got this? Viral and bacterial forms of conjunctivitis can be spread easily from person to person by coughing or sneezing. Bacteria or viruses can get in your eyes through contact with contaminated objects including dirty hands, towels and cosmetics.

Newborn babies may develop neonatal conjunctivitis due to exposure to bacteria as they pass through the birth canal. The sexually transmitted diseases of gonorrhea, herpes and chlamydia can also cause conjunctivitis in newborns during birth. Young babies may also get conjunctivitis because tear ducts do not properly form until they are about 6 months old.

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by exposure to allergens such as pollen or dust mites. Irritant conjunctivitis is caused by the eye coming into contact with substances that irritate the conjunctiva such as chlorinated water, shampoo or a foreign body in the eye.

What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

Symptoms of pink eye will depend on the cause.

Common symptoms include:

  • a red and bloodshot teary eye
  • a gritty or irritated feeling in the eye, especially when you rub it
  • a discharge which can form a crust on the eyelid overnight
  • excessive tearing, burning, itching and sensitivity to light.

What Are the Symptoms of Infectious Pink Eye?

After becoming infected, eye symptoms usually develop within 24 to 72 hours. The white part of the eye will feel red and gritty and this is followed by a discharge.

A bacterial infection usually occurs in both eyes and produces more discharge. Typically the discharge is thick and green or yellow in color and causes your eyelids to stick together in the morning. Your lymph nodes in front of the ears may be enlarged.

A viral infection usually only occurs in one eye with less discharge that is more watery and not colored. Viral conjunctivitis often accompanies other symptoms such as a sore throat and nasal congestion. The eyelids may be swollen and sensitive to bright light.

What Are the Symptoms of Other Forms of Pink Eye?

If you have allergic pink eye (caused by pollen, cosmetics or other substances) your eye will be red, teary and very itchy but there will be no colored discharge.

Symptoms are usually seasonal, like in the spring, summer or fall, and accompanied by other typical allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itchy nose, and scratchy throat.

Irritant or environmental conjunctivitis symptoms include pain, sensitivity to bright lights, watering and blurred vision.

How is Pink Eye Treated?

The type of treatment you will receive for pink eye will depend on the cause.

If you think you have pink eye you should see your doctor, especially if there is a pain inside your eye, your vision is blurred or if your eyes hurt in the light.

Babies with pink eye should be taken to the doctor because they are prone to developing bacterial conjunctivitis which can be serious and is highly contagious.

Contact lens wearers should remove lenses and seek advice because they have a higher risk of developing a more serious condition that could lead to permanent eye damage. In 2017, the CDC reported that roughly 6 out of 7 U.S. teenagers who wear contact lenses use them improperly, raising their risk for serious eye infections.

Treatment for Infectious Pink Eye

Your doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops or eye ointment if you are diagnosed with pink eye caused by bacteria.

Commonly used antibiotics include:

  • sulfacetamide
  • erythromycin
  • gentamicin
  • ciprofloxacin
  • ofloxacin.

Eye drops need to be used frequently during the day –- usually every two hours -- and an eye ointment may be used at night or every four to six hours during the day. Treatment may need to be continued for up to two weeks.

It is recommended that you continue with treatment for 24 hours after all symptoms have disappeared to ensure complete eradication of the bacteria.

Using Eye Drops Safely

How to use eye drops? First, allow the bottle of eye drops to warm in your hands. This is particularly important if the eye drops have come straight from the fridge and helps to avoid the shock of cold drops touching the eye.

Wash your hands and then wash away any discharge from the eyelids with warm water. Tip your head back or lie on a flat surface and then gently pull your lower eyelid down.

Position the bottle so the drop will fall directly into the lower lid pocket. Squeeze the bottle for the required number of drops. Close your eye and blink to spread the drops. Gently pressing the inner corner of your eye can stop bad tasting medication from dripping back into your throat.

Using Eye Ointments

  • If you are using both an eye drop and eye ointment, instill the eye drops first. Wash your hands first and wash away any discharge from the eyelids with warm water.
  • Gently pull down your lower eye lid and position the nozzle at the inner part of your eye near your nose.
  • Squeeze a 1 cm ribbon of ointment (like you would toothpaste) into your lower eyelid and move towards the outer edge of your eye.
  • Give the tube a half turn and this helps to cut the ribbon.

Treatment for Seasonal Allergic or Irritant Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis that is not infectious can also be treated.

If you are diagnosed with allergic pink eye the best treatment is to avoid the allergen. An application of a cold moist towel to the eyes and lubricating eye drops may help also. Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine or decongestant eye drop to help relieve itching and redness. Examples include:

Allergic conjunctivitis may also respond to prescription ophthalmic antihistamines like:

  • Bepreve (bepotastine ophthalmic)
  • Lastacaft (alcaftadine ophthalmic)
  • Patanol (olopatadine ophthalmic)
  • Zerviate (cetirizine hydrochloride).
  • Lotemax: a prescription steroid eye drop may be prescribed in more severe cases.

Eye make-up is best avoided to avoid further irritation.

Irritant pink eye requires prompt flushing with water and inspection for any damage to the eye. If vision is impaired, you may need to go to the emergency room and see an ophthalmologist.

Stop the Spread: Pink Eye in Children

If your child is diagnosed with pink eye here are a few tips to stop the spread and protect family members and friends.

  • Keep the eyes clear of discharge by washing the eyes gently with warm water.
  • Use a soft cloth or swab and use it only once. If only one eye is infected be very careful to use a clean cloth for each eye to avoid contamination. Wash the cloth in hot water immediately after use to limit spread of bacteria.
  • Try to stop your child rubbing their eyes and make sure both your hands and your child's stay clean.
  • Make sure your child is not sharing wash cloths or towels and keep toys that are held close to the face wiped or washed.
  • Change pillowcases frequently.
  • Finally, keep your child away from school or daycare while their eyes are inflamed or producing a discharge.

Self-Help and Prevention

You can help to prevent infectious conjunctivitis. Maintaining good personal hygiene will help prevent the spread of infectious pink eye. This means:

  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Having your own washcloth and towel
  • Using only your pillow and having a regular pillow case changing.
  • Keeping your hands away from your eyes.

Renewing your mascara and other eye make-up frequently is also recommended, and don't share eye make-up. To prevent conjunctivitis in newborns, all pregnant women should be tested and, if needed, treated for gonorrhea and chlamydia infections. As another preventive measure, newborns routinely are treated at birth with antibiotic eye drops.

Stay up-to-date with the latest news and medication approvals for conjunctivitis and share your stories on the Conjunctivitis Support Group.

Finished: Red, Irritated, Watering Eyes? Chances Are You’ve Got Pink Eye

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