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How Do You Get Pink Eye?

Pink eye or conjunctivitis is an infection or inflammation of the outer covering of the eye and the inner lining of the eyelids. In addition to the pink color, many people get a clear to yellow-green discharge from the eye.

Pink eye doesn’t usually cause pain, fever, or redness that goes beyond the eyeball and the inside of the eyelids. It also doesn’t affect your vision. In most cases, pink eye will go away on its own.

Other common signs and symptoms of pink eye include:

  • Crusting of the eyelids
  • Gritty feeling
  • Watery eyes
  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Burning
  • Swollen eyelids
  • A feeling that something is in your eyes

Pink eye is a common infection, especially in young children, because it is so contagious. It affects about 6 million people in the United States each year.1

What Causes Pink Eye?

Anything that causes irritation or infection in the eye is a potential cause of pink eye.

Infectious causes

  • Viral conjunctivitis: Viruses account for about 80% of conjunctivitis cases.2 The most common viruses that cause conjunctivitis include adenovirus (65% to 90% of cases),3 other viral causes include rubella, rubeola, enterovirus, Epstein Barr virus, herpes simplex virus, and varicella-zoster virus.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Bacterial conjunctivitis is less common than viral. Common causes of bacterial conjunctivitis include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, Staphylococcus aureus (more common in adults).4 Sexually transmitted infections can also cause bacterial conjunctivitis.

Noninfectious causes

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Sensitivity to allergens causes allergic conjunctivitis. This type of conjunctivitis is more common in people with other allergy symptoms. Itching and a watery eye discharge help distinguish allergic conjunctivitis from infectious causes.5
  • Chemical irritants: Chemicals in cosmetics are a common cause of chemically induced conjunctivitis. Chlorinated swimming pools are another common cause.
  • Foreign bodies: Contact lenses and other foreign bodies can cause eye redness and swelling.

Is Pink Eye Contagious?

Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious for as long as you have symptoms.

If you are unsure about the cause of your conjunctivitis, see a doctor in-person or online to receive an accurate online diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

How Does Pink Eye Spread? 

Bacteria and viruses that cause conjunctivitis are spread through direct contact or by coughing and sneezing. Pink eye can be spread by touching something that a person with contaminated fingers has previously touched. It is also spread in medical offices via contaminated medical instruments.  

Swimming pools are a common way to transmit conjunctivitis to multiple people. Finally, you can transmit conjunctivitis by sharing makeup and other personal items.2

Can Adults Get Pink Eye?

Adults can get pink eye, though it is more common in children. This is because children are in closer contact with each other in schools and childcare centers. They have also not developed immunity to as many viruses as adults have. Staphylococcus aureus is more common in adults than in children.

How Can You Stop Pink Eye from Spreading?

You can stop pink eye from spreading by taking some precautions. Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face and eyes, and cover any coughs or sneezes to protect others. Avoid crowded spaces, especially if they are not well-ventilated.

To stop the infection from spreading, wash your pillowcases, sheets, washcloths, and towels as often as possible with hot water and soap. Personal items should not be shared.

How To Treat Pink Eye

The best method to treat viral conjunctivitis depends on the cause.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Treat with symptomatic care, including:

  • Saline eye drops
  • Cold or warm compresses, don’t share compresses or use the same compress for an infected and noninfected eye

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Treat with medical care, including:

  • Antibiotic cream, eye drops, ointment

Allergic conjunctivitis

Treat with a combination of symptomatic and medical care, including:

  • Saline drops
  • Cool compresses
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Mast cell stabilizers
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Steroid eye drops

When To See a Doctor

See a doctor in-person or online and experience the benefits of telemedicine if your symptoms worsen or persist. Other worrying signs that might point to a more serious problem or illness than conjunctivitis are:

  • Eye pain
  • Vision symptoms
  • Light sensitivity
  • Symptoms that don’t improve within 24 hours
  • Swelling, redness, or tenderness around the eye or eyelids
  • Fever

If you think you may have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis or your symptoms from allergic conjunctivitis are not getting better with symptomatic care, call to schedule an appointment with a telemedicine doctor and learn how to get a prescription online.


While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.


1.  Udeh BL, Schneider JE, Ohsfeldt RL. Cost effectiveness of a point-of-care test for adenoviral conjunctivitis. Am J Med Sci. Sep 2008;336(3):254-64. doi:10.1097/MAJ.0b013e3181637417

2. Azari AA, Barney NP. Conjunctivitis: A Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Treatment. JAMA. 2013;310(16):1721-1730. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.280318

3. O’Brien TP, Jeng BH, McDonald M, Raizman MB. Acute conjunctivitis: truth and misconceptions. Curr Med Res Opin. Aug 2009;25(8):1953-61. doi:10.1185/03007990903038269

4.  Epling J. Bacterial conjunctivitis. BMJ Clin Evid. Feb 20, 2012;2012

5. La Rosa M, Lionetti E, Reibaldi M, et al. Allergic conjunctivitis: a comprehensive review of the literature. Italian Journal of Pediatrics. 2013;39(1):18. doi:10.1186/1824-7288-39-18

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