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How to Help Pink Eye

This uncomfortable condition is highly contagious. So how do you cure pink eye and keep it from spreading?

Closeup of irritated red bloodshot eye

By John Davis, OD

If one or both of your eyes are red, swollen, watery and/or have eyelid crusts that form while you sleep, you may have pink eye. Determining how to help pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, depends on knowing where the symptoms come from. 

Blurry vision, itchiness, sensitivity to light and a gritty feeling in one or both eyes are other signs of pink eye, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). These symptoms happen when there is irritation of the conjunctiva, according to the National Library of Medicine. The conjunctiva is the lining of your eyelid and the thin, clear layer of tissue over the whites of your eyes.

There are three major reasons for conjunctivitis, which is very contagious.

How Do You Cure Pink Eye?

How you cure pink eye depends on what causes it. To identify why you have pink eye and how to help you, your eye doctor will examine your eyes and might swab your conjunctiva to get a sample to test. 

There are three major causes of conjunctivitis, says the AAO. They are: 

  • Viral conjunctivitis, the most common cause of pink eye, is very contagious. It usually makes eyes red and watery and feel like they’re burning. This type of pink eye eventually goes away by itself, so you could say that time is the ultimate viral conjunctivitis treatment. To ease discomfort while you have viral conjunctivitis, your eye doctor may prescribe lubricating and/or decongestant drops; sometimes mild steroid (anti-inflammatory eye drops. 
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis, also highly contagious, causes soreness and redness. Bacterial infections often cause a lot of sticky pus in the eye, but sometimes there is little or no eye discharge. A prescription antibiotic, usually in the form of eyedrops, is the most common bacterial conjunctivitis treatment. 
  • Allergic conjunctivitis doesn’t spread between people. It comes from an allergic reaction to things that usually float in the air and requires a different treatment approach. Read my advice about eye allergies here. 

Other forms of pink eye are less common. For example, ongoing allergies or asthma can lead to a more serious condition called vernal conjunctivitis, according to the National Library of Medicine. And people who wear contact lenses may be likely to have another allergic condition known as giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC), the Cleveland Clinic says. The Cleveland Clinic also notes that GPC “can also happen if you have an artificial eye or stitches in your eye.”

Steps to Help Pink Eye and Its Symptoms

Using over-the-counter artificial tears can help reduce discomfort from conjunctivitis. To relieve crustiness of the eyelids, soak a clean cloth in warm water, then gently press onto your closed eyes, advises the National Library of Medicine. If you prefer a cool compress, the AAO says that’s fine, too. 

Other ways to relieve pink eye include:

  • Do not smoke or vape
  • Avoid secondhand smoke, direct wind and air conditioning
  • Use a humidifier, especially in the winter
  • Limit medicines that may dry you out and worsen your symptoms (for example, decongestants)
  • Gently wash your eyelashes with warm water once every day  

If you have symptoms from an eye infection that don’t seem to get better after three or four days, you should see an eye doctor to get a diagnosis and treatment. Also, visit your eye doctor right away especially if:

  • Your vision is blurry
  • Light hurts your eyes
  • You have eye pain that is severe or gets worse
  • Your eyelids or the skin around your eyes become swollen or red
  • If you use contact lenses on an overnight wearing schedule
  • You have a headache along with other symptoms

Prevent Conjunctivitis

Bacterial and viral pink eye are highly contagious. To prevent getting an eye infection, avoid direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids, especially hand-to-eye contact, says the AAO. 

The National Library of Medicine recommends keeping these good hygiene habits to prevent conjunctivitis:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Keep hands away from your eyes\
  • Handle and clean contact lenses properly
  • Change pillowcases often
  • Don’t share eye makeup and replace it regularly
  • Don’t share towels or handkerchiefs

Your vision is precious, so EyeQuest, part of Sun Life U.S., works to protect it. Our large, nationwide network proudly serves more than a million members. Find an eye-care professional here

John Davis, OD

Clinical Vision Director, EyeQuest

Dr. Davis serves as clinical vision director for EyeQuest, a division of Sun Life U.S. He was previously in private practice for 33 years, treating a variety of patients with numerous eye problems and conditions. During his career, Dr. Davis has been heavily involved in quality-of-care initiatives, including improving access to eye care for high-risk patient populations.

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