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Pinkeye (also called conjunctivitis) is redness and swelling of the
conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. The
lining of the eye is usually clear. If irritation or infection occurs, the
lining becomes red and swollen. See pictures of a normal
eye and an eye with
Pinkeye is very common. It
usually is not serious and goes away in 7 to 10 days without medical
Most cases of pinkeye are caused by:
Viral and bacterial pinkeye are contagious and spread very
easily. Since most pinkeye is caused by viruses for which there is usually no
medical treatment, preventing its spread is important. Poor hand-washing is the
main cause of the spread of pinkeye. Sharing an object, such as a washcloth or
towel, with a person who has pinkeye can spread the infection. For more information, see Prevention.
Viral pinkeye is often caused by an adenovirus, which is a common
respiratory virus that can also cause a sore throat or upper respiratory
infection. The herpes virus can also cause viral pinkeye.
Symptoms of viral pinkeye include:
Viral pinkeye symptoms usually last 5 to 7 days but may last up to
3 weeks and can become ongoing or chronic.
Pinkeye may be more serious if you:
If the pinkeye is caused by a
virus, the person can usually return to day care,
school, or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically in 3 to 5 days.
Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pinkeye, so it is important to
prevent the spread of the infection. Pinkeye caused by a herpes virus, which is
rare, can be treated with an antiviral medicine. Home treatment of viral
pinkeye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes
An infection may develop when bacteria enter the eye or the area
around the eye. Some common infections that cause pinkeye include:
Symptoms of bacterial pinkeye include:
Bacterial pinkeye may cause more drainage than viral pinkeye.
Bacterial infections usually last 7 to 10 days without antibiotic treatment and
2 to 4 days with antibiotic treatment. The person can usually return to day care,
school, or work 24 hours after an
antibiotic has been started if symptoms have improved.
Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause
Red eye is a more
general term that includes not only pinkeye but also many other problems that
cause redness on or around the eye, not just the lining. Pinkeye is the main
cause of red eye. Red eye has other causes, including:
Swollen, red eyelids may also be caused by
styes, a lump called a
chalazion, inflammation of the eyelid (blepharitis), or lack of tears (dry eyes). For more
information, see the topics
Styes and Chalazia and
Eyelid Problems (Blepharitis).
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a
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Home treatment for
pinkeye will help reduce your pain and keep your eye
free of drainage. If you wear contacts, remove them and wear glasses until your
symptoms have gone away completely. Thoroughly clean your contacts and storage
Cold compresses or
warm compresses (whichever feels best) can be used. If
an allergy is the problem, a cool compress may feel better. If the pinkeye is
caused by an infection, then a warm, moist compress may soothe your eye and help
reduce redness and swelling. Warm, moist compresses can spread infection from
one eye to the other. Use a different compress for each eye, and use a clean
compress for each application.
When cleaning your eye,
wipe from the inside (next to the nose) toward the outside. Use a clean surface
for each wipe so that drainage being cleaned away is not rubbed back across the
eye. If tissues or wipes are used, make sure they are put in the trash and are not
allowed to sit around. If washcloths are used to clean the eye, put them in the
laundry right away so that no one else picks them up or uses them. After wiping
your eye, wash your hands to prevent the pinkeye from spreading.
After pinkeye has been diagnosed:
For pinkeye related to allergies,
antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), may help relieve your symptoms. Don't
give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
Pinkeye is spread through contact with
the eye drainage, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the pinkeye.
Touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other
eye or an object when you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria can
The following tips help prevent the spread of
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
December 23, 2011
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
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