How to Get Rid of Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed
November 15, 2021

Red, itchy eyes. Watery or thick discharge. Crusty eyelids when you wake up in the morning.

If you’re experiencing any or all of these symptoms, you may have pink eye.

Also called conjunctivitis, pink eye is a type of eye infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva (which covers the white part of the eyeball).

While it can cause discomfort, it’s usually not serious, and often, it resolves on its own.

That said, some cases of pink eye may be severe or require treatment to resolve.

It’s also highly contagious.

If you think you have pink eye, talk to your health care provider or chat with a K doctor, who can help diagnose you.

Your medical provider can also recommend a treatment plan, whether home remedies or medication depending on the underlying cause of your conjunctivitis, to improve your symptoms.

Read on to learn more about pink eye, possible treatments, how to prevent it, and more. 

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What is Pink Eye?

Pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, occurs when a person’s conjunctiva — the transparent membrane lining the eyelid and eyeball — becomes infected or inflamed.

When the small blood vessels in the eye experience inflammation, they become more visible, which can cause the eye to look red. 

It can stem from a few different causes.

Viral pink eye is caused by a viral infection and can occur with the common cold, influenza, or another viral respiratory infections.

Often, with viral pink eye, discharge appears thin and watery instead of thick. It typically starts in one eye but can also spread to the other eye as it is extremely contagious.

Then there’s bacterial pink eye, which is caused when bacteria infect the eye.

Bacterial pink eye usually causes discharge which is thick and can cause a person’s eyelids or eyelashes to stick together.

In the morning, the discharge may have dried and can look crusty.

Allergic reactions can also irritate the conjunctiva and cause pink eye.

It generally affects both eyes and occurs along with other allergy symptoms, like a scratchy throat, itchy nose, sneezing, or asthma symptoms.

Along with redness, pink eye can cause several symptoms, including: 

  • Swelling of the conjunctiva or eyelids
  • Increased tear production 
  • An urge to rub your eyes
  • Itching, burning, or irritation 
  • Pus or mucus discharge
  • Waking up with crust in your eyelids or eyelashes
  • Contact lenses that feel uncomfortable or won’t stay in

Ultimately, pink eye symptoms depend on the type of conjunctivitis you’re experiencing.

If you’re uncomfortable or your symptoms are worsening, see a health care provider or chat with a K doctor, who can diagnose you and help you find ways to manage your discomfort. 

How To Treat Pink Eye

Some types of pink eye are self-resolving, which means they resolve on their own without medical treatment.

How long pink eye takes to go away — and whether pink eye needs treatment — depends on what’s causing it and how severe it is. 

Treating viral pink eye

Viral conjunctivitis usually clears up in a week or two without treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If it doesn’t go away on its own — particularly if the infection is caused by herpes or varicella — your doctor may recommend an antiviral medication.

Herpes infection that affects the eye also known as “herpes zoster ophthalmicus” should always been examined in person.

Treating bacterial pink eye

Mild bacterial pink eye can also get better without treatment.

Typically, according to the CDC, mild cases start to resolve within 2-5 days but can take up to two full weeks to totally go away.

If the infection doesn’t resolve or if it’s severe, your health care provider may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment to resolve symptoms and prevent the spread of your infection.

Treating allergic pink eye

Allergic pink eye usually goes away when the allergen is removed.

For example, if you’re allergic to animal dander, leaving the environment with the animal could help.

If the pink eye is the result of another factor, like a pollen allergy, antihistamine medications can help relieve your allergy symptoms.

Your doctor may also recommend redness-relieving eye drops called vasoconstrictors, which are available over the counter, or prescription eye drops to relieve symptoms. 

Home remedies for pink eye 

You can also improve pink eye symptoms at home, especially if your symptoms are mild or moderate.

Try using a cold compress to soothe your eyes.

To make your own compress, soak a clean and lint-free cloth in cool water, wring it out, and apply it to your closed eye.

Just make sure not to touch your other eye with the cloth if only one eye is infected. 

Basic over-the-counter eye drops (artificial tears) can also soothe discomfort from pink eye.

Ask your doctor for recommendations and make sure to follow the instructions on the package to decrease your symptoms.

Even if you don’t see a doctor for your pink eye, don’t wear contact lenses until your symptoms resolve. 

Pink Eye Prevention

Viral and bacterial pink eye are highly transmissible, which means they easily spread between eyes and people.

If you have pink eye, it’s important to take precautions to prevent it from spreading to your other eye or to another person. 

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after you touch your eyes or give yourself eye drops or medication.

Try not to touch, itch, or rub your eyes if possible, and don’t share anything that touches your eye with others, such as glasses, makeup, towels, or pillows.

If you wear glasses, clean them routinely.

To prevent catching pink eye from someone else, you’ll want to follow many of the same principles.

Wash your hands as much as you can and don’t share personal items. 

After a bout of pink eye, take precautions to prevent getting it again.

Clean your glasses and sunglasses, throw away any makeup or sponges you used when you had pink eye, and wash your washcloths, towels, and pillow cases before using them again.

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When to See a Doctor

While pink eye rarely causes any serious medical problems, it’s important to seek medical care if you experience any of the following symptoms: 

  • Pain in your eyes
  • Blurred vision or sensitivity to light that doesn’t go away when you wipe away discharge 
  • Intense or worsening redness 
  • Symptoms that don’t get better or worsen
  • A compromised immune system from another medical condition or treatment

If your doctor prescribed you antibiotics for bacterial pink eye but your symptoms aren’t improving after 24 hours of treatment, check in with your health care provider to make sure your pink eye doesn’t have another cause. 

How K Health Can Help

If you’re not sure what’s causing your eyes to be red or feel irritated, talk to a doctor.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does pink eye last?
How long pink eye lasts depends on the type you’re experiencing. Some cases resolve on their own within a few days; others can last up to two weeks. If your pink eye isn’t going away or it’s getting worse, talk to a health care provider or reach out to a K doctor.
Will pink eye go away on its own?
Yes, pink eye can go away on its own. Many cases of pink eye resolve within a week or two, and mild bacterial pink eye can start to improve within a few days. Allergic pink eye usually resolves with treatment or by removing the allergen. If your pink eye is bothering you after a few days, talk to a doctor.
What is the main cause of pink eye?
Pink eye can stem from a number of causes. The most common cause of pink eye is the adenovirus, but you can also get pink eye from other viruses, bacteria, and allergens.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.