Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is not fun (unless you enjoy wearing an eye patch like a pirate). When you have this common and often contagious infection of the front surface of the eye, all you want is for it to be over. If — or when — you get a case of pink eye, are there any remedies or anything you can do to speed up your recovery? Remedies for pink eye depend on its cause and severity. If you have pink eye symptoms, your first step should be to see an eye doctor near you to determine the cause and type of conjunctivitis you have.
Types of pink eye
There are three primary categories of pink eye: viral, bacterial and allergic/chemical. Remedies vary for each pink eye type.
Viral conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, just like the common cold. This type of pink eye is highly contagious and spreads through sneezing and coughing by someone with an upper respiratory tract infection. Viral pink eye remedies are really aimed at simply relieving symptoms, since there currently is no effective medical treatment for this type of conjunctivitis.
“Treating viral conjunctivitis is more difficult since it cannot be cured through drops, ointments or antibiotics,” says Samuel D. Pierce, OD, past president of the American Optometric Association. “Like a common cold, the virus has to run its course, which may take up to two or three weeks.”
Common pink eye remedies for viral conjunctivitis symptoms include cool compresses, over-the-counter (OTC) lubricating eyedrops (artificial tears), topical antihistamines and vasoconstrictors. For severe cases, your eye doctor might also prescribe topical steroid eye drops to reduce the discomfort from inflammation. It’s important to know that viral pink eye remedies will provide some relief but they will not shorten the duration of the viral conjunctivitis infection.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria that most often are found in a person’s own skin or respiratory system. It can also be the result of physical contact with other people, poor hygiene, insects and using or sharing contaminated eye makeup and facial lotions. Bacterial conjunctivitis usually is treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments.
While it may improve after three or four days of treatment, you need to take the entire course of antibiotics as directed by your doctor to prevent a recurrence. If not treated promptly, bacterial conjunctivitis can cause serious damage, including blindness.
Allergic and chemical conjunctivitis
Allergic conjunctivitis is a chronic condition that occurs most commonly in people with established seasonal allergies. Chemical conjunctivitis is caused by air irritants like pollen, smoke, chlorine in swimming pools, cosmetic ingredients, contact lens solution and other products that come in contact with the eyes. Allergic and chemical conjunctivitis are non-contagious seasonal or year-round problems, and usually affect both eyes.
The best remedy for chronic allergic conjunctivitis is to remove or avoid the irritant when possible. Cool compresses, artificial tears, and OTC “allergy eye drops” also can provide relief. More severe cases may require nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), antihistamines, mast cell stabilizers and decongestants. In persistent cases, topical steroid eye drops also may be prescribed. Chemical conjunctivitis usually is treated by carefully flushing the eyes with saline and/or topical steroids.
See your eye doctor about your pink eye
Unproven home remedies for pink eye usually are a bad idea — especially if you don’t know the cause of your red, uncomfortable eyes. The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises against using OTC “eye-whitening” eye drops, like Visine, for any kind of pink eye because they may worsen the symptoms and add to the discomfort.
If your pink eye symptoms last more than a week, or if there’s discharge from the eye that is yellow or green, eye pain, impaired vision, sensitivity to light, fever, chills or body aches, see your eye doctor. Don’t take chances: See an eye doctor and use only pink eye remedies your doctor recommends.
By Beth Longware Duff; reviewed by Gary Heiting, OD