Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(2):145

See related article on red eye.

Pink eye is an inflammation of the tissue that covers the eyeball and the inside of your eyelid. Pink eye is also called conjunctivitis (con-junk-tiv-EYE-tis). It is usually caused by a mild infection that isn't serious. Most pink eye is caused by a virus, but it can also be caused by other germs (such as bacteria or fungi) or allergens (such as pollen or dust).

What are the symptoms?

The following symptoms are common with pink eye:

  • Redness and burning of the eyes

  • Watery or yellowish discharge that can cause your eyelids to stick together, especially when you wake up

  • Blurred vision or sensitivity to light

  • Swollen eyelids

  • Tenderness around your eyes

You should see a doctor if your symptoms last for more than three days.

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on the cause. Pink eye caused by a virus goes away in about a week without treatment. Pink eye caused by bacteria also goes away without treatment, but your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or gel if your symptoms are severe.

If it is caused by allergens, you should stay away from the things that trigger the symptoms. Your doctor may suggest that you use eye drops to help soothe redness and itching.

Is it contagious?

Pink eye caused by allergens is not contagious, but pink eye caused by germs may be very contagious. You can get it by having direct contact with a person who has it. For example, you can get it by rubbing your eye if your hand has germs on it, through coughing or sneezing, or by swimming in the same pool as someone who has pink eye. You can also get it by sharing personal items with someone who has it, such as towels or makeup.

What can I do to prevent spreading it?

It is important that you wash your hands well and use tissues and paper towels. Don't share personal items. If your eyes are red or draining, don't wear contact lenses. You don't need to stay away from other people, but it may be best to keep children home from school or day care if they have pink eye that is caused by germs.

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