If you have symptoms of pink eye, or conjunctivitis, you may want to seek medical care, although it is not always necessary. Pink eye can be treated with over-the-counter medications or prescription medication from a doctor. There are three types of conjunctivitis (viral, bacterial, and allergic) that affect what kind of care you may need.
Treatment for Pink Eye
You can go to an urgent care center, primary care physician, or a CVS Minute Clinic to receive a diagnosis and treatment for pink eye. To diagnose the cause of conjunctivitis, doctors will assess a patient’s symptoms, medical history, and conduct an eye exam. Treatment for pink eye depends on its cause which can be due to:
- A foreign object in the eye
- A chemical splash in the eye
- In newborns, a blocked tear duct
Type of Pink Eye and Treatment
Type of Conjunctivitis
Length of Infection
Should I see a doctor?
Artificial tears and a cold compress, antiviral medications
Up to 2 weeks (usually 4 to 7 days)
Yes, if it’s from an STD or chickenpox/shingles, otherwise it will go away on its own.
Up to 1 week
Yes, to prevent the infection from spreading.
Prescription or over-the-counter eye drops
A few days to 1 week or as soon as the allergen is removed
Yes, if you want prescription medication to treat it. Otherwise, over-the-counter medications can help relieve symptoms.
Rinse with water for 5 minutes
Eyes should improve within 4 hours of rinsing (otherwise call doctor)
Yes, call a doctor immediately if symptoms do not improve after 4 hours of rinsing
Source: Cleveland Clinic
Viral conjunctivitis is usually accompanied by the common cold or a respiratory infection. Discharge from the eye is often more watery than thick and easily spreads from one eye to the other. Viral pink eye often clears up on its own within a few days without medical treatment.
Over-the-counter medication such as artificial tears along with a cold compress can help relieve symptoms. Antiviral medication may be prescribed if your viral conjunctivitis is caused by chickenpox, shingles, or sexually transmitted diseases.
Bacterial conjunctivitis often occurs at the same time as an ear infection and discharge is usually thick rather than watery. Unlike viral pink eye, bacterial pink eye does not go away on its own and requires antibiotics in the form of eye drops, ointments, or pills to treat it.
The infection should improve within a week and often improves faster as long as you take the medication as instructed. If left untreated, bacterial pink eye can lead to infections of the cornea, eyelids, and tear ducts. To prevent the risk of worsening infection, most people seek professional treatment for bacterial pink eye.
Allergic conjunctivitis can occur seasonally, typically in the spring and summer months when seasonal allergens are more prevalent, or can persist throughout the year due to indoor allergens like animal dander, dust, and mold.
Allergic pink eye is treated with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops that control allergic reactions or anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids or decongestants. Applying a cold compress on the closed eye can help relieve symptoms.
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Symptoms of Pink Eye
Pink eye is an inflammation or infection of the clear tissue (conjunctiva) that covers lines the inside surface of your eyelid and the outer coating of your eye. Conjunctiva helps keep your eyelid and eyeball moist. When small blood vessels in the conjunctiva are inflamed, they’re more visible which causes your eyes to appear pink or red.
Common Symptoms of Pink Eye
The most common pink eye symptoms include:
- Redness in the eye(s)
- Itchiness in the eye(s)
- Gritty feeling in the eye(s)
- Blurred vision
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Swollen eyelids
- Thick discharge in the eye(s) that forms a crust at night which can prevent the eye(s) from opening in the morning
When to Seek a Healthcare Professional
According to the CDC, you should see a healthcare provider if you have pink eye along with the following symptoms:
- Pain in the eye(s)
- Redness in the eye(s)
- Sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve when discharge is removed
- Symptoms that don’t improve or get worse
- A weakened immune system (eg: HIV infection, cancer treatment, etc.)
If your newborn has symptoms of pinkeye, a healthcare provider should be seen right away.
How much does it cost to Treat Pink Eye without insurance?
Without insurance, the cost to treat pink eye can range from under $10 to almost $200. The cost to treat pink eye depends on numerous factors such as type of pink eye, location, what type of health center you seek treatment at, and brand name or generic prescription medication. Below is a list of potential costs associated with each type of conjunctivitis:
- Viral Conjunctivitis:
- Bacterial Conjunctivitis:
- Allergic Conjunctivitis:
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Pink Eye Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
If you or someone you know has pink eye, you may have some questions regarding what you can wear and where you can go and how contagious pink eye is.
Will I be able to go to work with pink eye?
If you have pink eye but do not have a fever or other symptoms, you may be allowed at work or school with your doctor’s approval. However, if you still have symptoms, you should not attend. Pink eye is highly contagious and is easily spread through hand-to-eye contact or contaminated objects.
Can I give my pet pink eye?
Yes, dogs and cats can get pink eye from humans, however, it is rare that humans contract pink eye from their pets. Pink eye is also common for dogs and cats and is treatable. Be sure to wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes if you have pink eye to prevent the spread.
Can I wear contacts if I have pink eye?
No, if you have pink eye stick to wearing glasses as contacts can slow down the treatment process and increase the risk of infection spreading. You can wear your contacts once you’ve completed your antibiotics and once symptoms are no longer present.
Pink eye is one of the most common eye infections in children and adults. Treatment for pinkeye varies depending on the type you have which affects the cost of care needed to treat it. There are many shared symptoms of pinkeye depending on the cause, however, it is possible to tell what type it is based on a few differences. If you can’t tell what type you have, consider seeking professional care to prevent further risks of spread.
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Erica graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a BS in environmental science and a minor in English and is on track to graduate with her Master's in Public Health. She is passionate about health equity, women's health, and how the environment impacts public health.