Pinkeye: How to spot and stop it

Learn how to recognize this common eye condition

Let’s face it — eyes aren’t pretty in pink. The telltale signs of pinkeye don’t look or feel good, including reddish, irritated eyes that burn and itch. 

Doctors call it conjunctivitis. It means the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid are inflamed. It seems to come out of nowhere. 

How common is pinkeye? Each year, approximately 6 million people in the U.S. are affected by acute conjunctivitis. And about 3 million school days are lost every year to pinkeye. 

Pinkeye can be infectious. That means it can spread from person to person and from one eye to the other. Here’s what you need to know.

How it starts

Two common causes are bacteria and viruses. Pinkeye sometimes develops after a person has had a cold or flu-like symptoms. Bacterial and viral pinkeye can be highly contagious. Pinkeye can be caused by contact lenses as well — if they are not clean or are worn for excessive periods of time. 

Allergens or irritants — such as smoke, smog or chlorine — can also cause it. This type of pinkeye can’t be spread to others. 

Signs and symptoms

They can vary from mild to more severe. Besides redness, generally one or both of the eyes may:

  • Have discharge, either watery or thicker
  • Form a crusty buildup on the eyelids or lashes in the morning
  • Feel gritty or have mild eyelid swelling
  • Have increased tearing — or itching, especially when caused by allergies
  • Have blurred vision caused by other symptoms

Talking with your doctor

Most cases of viral pinkeye will clear up on their own. But do call your primary doctor or eye doctor if you have eye redness with discharge that’s watery, or thick and white, yellow or green. 

If you have children, check with schools or daycare centers about their pinkeye policies. Some may require a doctor’s note for attendance.  

The treatment for pinkeye may depend on what caused it. For bacterial cases, doctors typically prescribe antibiotic eye drops. But those won’t help viral infections or pinkeye caused by allergens or irritants. 

What you can do 

To avoid giving pinkeye to others — or spreading it from one eye to another: 

  • Try not to touch your eyes with your hands.
  • Wash your hands often — especially before and after touching your eyes.
  • Launder washcloths, towels and bed linens in hot water.
  • Avoid sharing eye and face makeup and makeup brushes.
  • Don’t share eye drops or other items that may have contact with your eyes. 
  • Don’t use cosmetics on your eyes until the condition has cleared. Replace eye makeup after an infection. 
  • Ask your doctor if you should stop wearing contact lenses. If pinkeye has been caused by improper contact lens use, talk with your eye doctor about how to care for your lenses.

Placing a cool or warm washcloth over your eye may help you feel better, depending on the kind of pinkeye you have. But don’t use the same cloth on both eyes. Using an over-the-counter artificial tears solution, if recommended by your doctor, may also soothe symptoms. 

Lovely lashes call for …

Replace eye cosmetics, such as mascara, every three months. This can help prevent eye infections.  

Questions for your doctor

If you see your doctor for pinkeye, these questions may help: 

  1. What type of pinkeye do I have?
  2. Is it contagious? 
  3. Do I need prescription eye drops?
  4. How long will it take for these symptoms to get better?
  5. Should I stay home from work or school until my symptoms improve?