- There are four types of pink eye: bacterial, viral, allergic, and irritative.
- Cold compresses are a great way to soothe the irritation caused by a virus or allergies.
- Warm compresses loosen up dried mucus caused by bacterial infections.
- This article was medically reviewed by Benjamin Bert, MD, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Centre in Fountain Valley, CA.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is when the protective membrane that covers your eye – called the conjunctiva – becomes infected or inflamed. This can cause redness and irritation.
Here is a guide to the different types of pink eye and what you can do to treat conjunctivitis.
Types of Pink Eye
According to Ivan R. Schwab, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there are several common culprits for most cases of pink eye:
- Bacterial Conjunctivitis: Bacteria like staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria causes this type of pink eye, which usually produces pus or a thick, gooey discharge that can make your eyelids or eyelashes stick together. You can treat a case of bacterial conjunctivitis with antibiotics.
- Viral pink eye: It’s caused by viruses often associated with the common cold. It tends to produce a watery discharge or extra tears. Unfortunately, those antibiotics won’t knock out a viral infection, so you have to wait for it go away on its own.
- Allergic pink eye: Your allergies might make you sneeze and turn your eyes red. Reducing your exposure to or contact with your known allergen can help with a case of allergic conjunctivitis. Taking allergy medication can help, too.
- Irritative pink eye: Your eyes may get irritated and dried out from being around cigarette smoke or air pollution. Dry eye may also be a cause. Removing the source of irritation should be your first step.
How to treat pink eye at home
Pink eye will usually resolve on its own. A case of bacterial conjunctivitis might go away in about five days, says Schwab. But viral pink eye can take a couple of weeks before the infection is completely gone.
It’s a good idea to go ahead and call your doctor if you think you have conjunctivitis, especially, “if you have pain and decreased vision,” says Schwab. “That’s a sign that you need to see your ophthalmologist.”
Increased sensitivity to light is another reason to see your doctor, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Depending on the type of conjunctivitis you have, you can manage your symptoms at home with a few simple remedies:
- Cold compresses. Cold compresses are a great way to soothe the irritation or itching of a case of pinkeye caused by a virus or allergies.
How to use them: Soak a clean washcloth in cold water. Wring it out, then fold in half and drape it over your eyes for a few minutes at a time.
- Warm compresses. Since eye discharge is common with bacterial infections, a warm compress is a great solution because it loosens up any dried mucus around your eye. But be careful not to make the water too hot, says Schwab. It should be comfortable to the touch.
How to use them: Soak a clean washcloth in warm water. Wring out the excess water, then place the warm damp cloth across your eyes. You can leave it there until it cools.
- Artificial tears. Also known as lubricating eye drops, artificial tears are readily available over the counter at your drugstore or big box store. These are especially useful if you have an irritative pink eye. They add moisture to your eyes, which helps flush the irritant out and lubricate dry eyes.
How to use them: Simply squeeze the drops in your eyes. You can use them as often as you need to if you’re using a preservative-free version. If you use one that does contain preservatives, you may need to limit yourself to using them four times or less each day, since the preservatives may cause irritation if you use them too often. You might also consider sticking them in the fridge as the cooler drops might make your eyes feel better, says Schwab.
A few more tips for coping with pink eye
Pink eye can be contagious if it’s bacterial or viral in nature. That’s why, while you’re recovering from pink eye, it’s a good idea to embrace some basic hygiene measures:
- Don’t touch your eyes with your hands.
- Wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading the infection.
- Don’t share your towels or washcloths with anyone.
- Wear your glasses instead of your contact lenses until the infection is gone.
And it may sound obvious but it’s worth emphasising: “Don’t put stuff in your eye that’s not approved to be put in your eye,” Schwab says.
If you start having pain and decreased vision in either eye, don’t wait. Call your doctor right away.