Understanding Pink Eye -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on July 21, 2021

How Is Pink Eye Diagnosed?

To diagnose pink eye (conjunctivitis), your doctor will ask about the usual symptoms, such as burning, itchy eyes that discharge a thick, sticky mucus and tearing. The doctor will also observe that your eye is inflamed or red. Often, the cause can be determined from your symptoms, medical history, and the eye exam findings alone. Most of the time, treatment is started right away. If there are additional lab results, treatment may be modified based on the results of lab tests.



What Are the Treatments for Pink Eye?

Home remedies might be enough to soothe pink eye symptoms associated with colds, minor infections, or allergies. Treatment consists primarily of cleansing the eyes with artificial tears. Cool compresses can also be soothing.

To help relieve the discomfort of pink eye, apply a cool compress for 5 to 10 minutes, three to four times a day. Preservative-free artificial tears can be applied a few times a day. Never use steroid eye drops or medications from a friend without a doctor's prescription. And be extremely careful not to share towels or washcloths with others so as not to spread an extremely contagious viral or bacteria pink eye to others. You should also be careful about using the same cloths or drops between your two eyes so as not to transfer the infection to your other eye. Discard cosmetic eye products which may have been contaminated. Do not wear contact lenses.

Pink eye that includes itching and affects both eyes would suggest an allergy. Place a cool compress on your closed eye and use nonprescription allergy or antihistamine eye drops to relieve itching and burning. If the condition worsens or does not improve in a few days, consult your doctor. Marked discomfort, loss of vision and involvement of one eye only suggests a more serious problem which needs to be medically evaluated by your health care provider or eye doctor.

Pink eye caused by a virus usually runs its course in one to three weeks. Because it is not caused by bacteria, viral conjunctivitis does not respond to antibiotics. It can also be highly contagious. If viral pink eye is suspected, your hands are "weapons" that will spread the infection. Don't share towels or washcloths. Artificial tears may help relieve symptoms of viral pink eye.

Pink eye caused by the herpes virus can be very serious and may be treated with prescription antiviral eye drops, ointment, or pills.

For pink eye caused by bacteria, the treatment will usually be antibiotic eye drops or ointment. This generally clears the symptoms within a few days. Be sure to complete the full course of antibiotic treatment. For more stubborn infections, an oral antibiotic may be prescribed. Oral antibiotics are prescribed for highly unusual cases of pink eye caused by gonorrhea or chlamydia. Sexual partners should also treated. Also, if pink eye doesn't go away after a month, you may be tested for chlamydia.

Allergic pink eye should respond to topical vasoconstrictors (medicines that narrow the blood vessels), antihistamines, or steroid eye drops. Again, never apply steroid drops for any eye symptoms without a doctor's prescription.

WebMD Medical Reference


Bradford, C (Editor) Basic Ophthalmology. American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2004.

WebMD Medical Reference: "Conjunctivitis."

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Click to view privacy policy and trust info