A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Pink eye? Understanding conjunctivitis symptoms

The first time your child wakes up with a puffy, runny or red eye may be alarming. Don’t fear. It’s probably conjunctivitis, or pink eye, a common condition among kids and adults.

illustration of eye that is pink due to infection

It isn’t serious and usually clears up without complications. It’s contagious, so you’ll need to take steps protect friends and family.

Redness, swelling and tearing are the main symptoms.

Pink eye refers to when bacteria or a virus infect the white part of your eye, called your conjunctiva. This can cause the eye to become red, swollen, and irritated.

“Watery eyes or mucus discharge are also common symptoms,” said Dr. Liesl Amon, optometrist at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Some people may have cold symptoms as well, including coughing, congestion, and runny nose.”

Conjunctivitis shouldn’t affect your sight. Check your vision by covering the healthy eye. You should be able to see the television or a picture on the wall clearly out of your pink or red eye.

Pink eye spreads easily.

Conjunctivitis is contagious and easily spread from one eye to the other and between people. Stay home from school or work until eye discharge stops and symptoms improve, or 24 hours after effective treatment for bacterial pink eye.

RELATED RESOURCE: Care My Way® gives quick treatment for common conditions like pink eye. Download the app to get started.

“The most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of pink eye is practice good hand hygiene,” Dr. Amon said. “Avoid touching your eyes and face, and wash hands frequently.”

Don’t share towels or washcloths with someone who has conjunctivitis. Don’t wear contact lenses while you have symptoms. Get a new pair of contacts after the illness clears up.

Medication usually isn’t needed.

Viral pink eye usually resolves on its own within 14 days.

There usually is no need for antibiotics, prescription eye drops or ointments if you have a virus. Antibiotic eye drops may shorten the length of bacterial infection, but they aren’t always necessary to treat conjunctivitis.

“Discomfort can be relieved by over-the-counter artificial tear eye drops and cold compresses,” Dr. Amon said.

Pain, vision problems or a contact lens wearer? See a doctor.

See an eye doctor immediately if you have a red or pink eye and any of the following apply to you:

  • Vision problems, severe pain or significant swelling around your eye. Rubbing your eyes frequently can scratch your cornea and cause problems that need medical attention.
  • You wear contact lenses and woke up with a red eye. It could be a serious eye problem such as a corneal ulcer that causes permanent damage. Don’t wear contact lenses overnight.
  • You’re not sure what is causing your eye to look pink or red. Sometimes other eye problems, including allergies, infections, dry eye or irritation caused by chemicals can look like conjunctivitis.

If you have conjunctivitis concerns, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System provider.

Contact Care My Way Message your provider

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