What Does Pink Eye Look Like? Signs and Symptoms
Pink eye is the common name for conjunctivitis, an inflammation or infection of the clear covering over the eyeball and lining the inside of the eyelid. It is an umbrella term for any of the many things that can cause pink eye, like bacteria, viruses, or allergies. Pink eye symptoms are non-specific.
Pink eye does not affect your vision. It usually goes away on its own after a few days, but it can be highly contagious. Bacterial causes of pink eye require treatment; viral causes resolve on their own; and allergic causes may persist as long as you are exposed to the allergen.
Conjunctivitis is common. It affects about 6 million people in the United States each year.1 Viral and allergic conjunctivitis is most prevalent in the summer. Bacterial conjunctivitis has a peak incidence between December and April.2
What Is Pink Eye?
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the outer covering of the eye. The process is very similar to inflammation of the inner lining of the nose. Instead of nasal congestion and a runny nose, you can expect tearing and crusting around the eye.
Pink eye comes from direct contact with an infectious person. Because children are more likely to be together and in close contact with each other, pink eye is more common in children, but adults can also get it.
There are three major types of conjunctivitis: bacterial, viral, and allergic.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is highly contagious and is treated with antibiotic cream or ointment. Unlike viral or allergic conjunctivitis, most people with bacterial conjunctivitis have a yellow, green discharge without itchiness.3 Like viral conjunctivitis, bacterial conjunctivitis commonly starts in one eye and spreads to the other.
Viral conjunctivitis is the most common cause of conjunctivitis. There are over 200 different viral strains that cause colds and viral conjunctivitis.4 Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious. It spreads via contaminated fingers, medical instruments, swimming pools, and sharing personal items.5
Viral conjunctivitis commonly starts in one eye, affects both eyes, and has a watery to yellowish discharge. Antibiotics are not helpful in treating viral conjunctivitis.
Unlike viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious. Allergic conjunctivitis is in response to an allergen. Antibiotics are not helpful in treating allergic conjunctivitis. Symptoms include intense itching, tearing, and swelling. You may also have other allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchiness, and a dry cough.
Other causes of conjunctivitis include:
- Contact lens irritation
- Air pollution
- Foreign bodies
What Does Pink Eye Look Like?
Pink eye is appropriately named, as it describes the primary symptom of conjunctivitis. In addition to a pink color, you may notice that the clear covering over the surface of the eyeball and the inner lining of the eyelid is swollen.
Symptoms of Pink Eye
In addition to redness and swelling of the eyeball and eyelid coverings, other symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- Discharge, which varies from clear to yellow-green
- Crusting of the eyelids and eyelashes
- Gritty feeling
- Watery eyes
- A feeling that there is something in your eye
- Swollen eyelids
How Do You Know If You Have Pink Eye?
If your eyeball is pink to red in color, you have pink eye. The more challenging question is, “What is causing your pink eye?”
If your eye discharge:
- is clearer to yellow and watery instead of green and thick, and you have cold symptoms, the cause is likely a virus.
- is thick and yellow-green and you have other signs of a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection, the cause is likely bacterial.
- is coming from both eyes and your eyes are itchy and watery, the cause is likely allergic.
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.
See a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms with pink eye:
- Eye pain
- Vision symptoms
- Light sensitivity
- Symptoms that don’t improve within 24 hours
- Swelling, redness, or tenderness around the eye or eyelids
See a doctor if you have a health condition that weakens your immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
What To Do If You Have Pink Eye
Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are very contagious. To protect others, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face and eyes, and cover any coughs or sneezes. To keep the infection from spreading, wash your pillowcases, sheets, washcloths, and towels, often with hot water and soap. Do not share personal items.
Your work or school may require a doctor’s note before you can return. Consult with an online doctor to be evaluated quickly, receive treatment, get a doctor’s note, and rule out any conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye.
What Is the Treatment for Pink Eye?
Most viral conjunctivitis can be treated with symptomatic care, such as saline eye drops and warm or cold compresses. If you wear contact lenses, remove them and replace them with a fresh pair once your infection is gone. If you have herpes simplex virus or varicella-zoster virus, antiviral treatment is recommended, along with close follow-up with an eye doctor.
Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated with antihistamines, decongestants, mast cell stabilizers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid eye drops. If possible, try to identify the allergen causing your symptoms and minimize your contact.6
For bacterial conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream, eye drops, or ointment. They decrease the length of time you have symptoms and can reduce contagiousness.5 An online doctor can send a prescription to a local pharmacy or transmit an online prescription to a partner pharmacy for delivery.
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. Høvding G. Acute bacterial conjunctivitis. Acta Ophthalmol. Feb 2008;86(1):5-17. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0420.2007.01006.x
3. Epling J. Bacterial conjunctivitis. BMJ Clin Evid. Feb 20 2012;2012
4. Grief SN. Upper respiratory infections. Prim Care. Sep 2013;40(3):757-70. doi:10.1016/j.pop.2013.06.004
5. Azari AA, Barney NP. Conjunctivitis: A Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Treatment. JAMA. 2013;310(16):1721-1730. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.280318
6. La Rosa M, Lionetti E, Reibaldi M, et al. Allergic conjunctivitis: a comprehensive review of the literature. Italian Journal of Pediatrics. 2013/03/14 2013;39(1):18. doi:10.1186/1824-7288-39-18