You glance in the mirror and then do a double-take. The whites of your eyes are definitely pinker than usual, and they’re a little itchy, too. You might have pink eye. But how do you know? And if you do have pink eye symptoms, what do you need to do?
What is pink eye?
Pink eye is another name for the common eye condition called conjunctivitis. Pink eye occurs because something has irritated the conjunctiva, which is the tissue that lines the inside of your eyelid and covers the white part of your eye, which is called the sclera. The result: the sclera appears to be pink or reddish.
If the white part of your eye is pink, you can probably blame one of these four culprits:
What causes pink eye?
How can you tell if you have bacterial conjunctivitis?
“I awoke with my eye crusted shut,” says Meg McCroskey, who lives in Boulder, Colorado. “And then it was itchy and red/pink for the rest of the day. I’ve had it before, so I had a good guess it was conjunctivitis.”
Many people with bacterial conjunctivitis develop a mucus-y discharge in their eye that can make their eyelids stick together. It might even be hard to pull your eyelids apart when you wake up in the morning, as Blum experienced. Plus, the white of your eye will be red or pink.
A doctor can confirm the diagnosis and prescribe antibiotic eyedrops, which you’ll need to take for about seven to ten days.
Once you start those antibiotic eyedrops, “you should start getting better within 24 to 48 hours,” says ophthalmologist Dr. Natasha Herz, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), viral conjunctivitis is the most common kind of pink eye. Viral conjunctivitis can also make your eyes pink or red. But instead of a thicker mucus, the discharge in your eye is likely to be thinner and watery.
The good news, depending on how you look at it, is that you don’t need any specific treatments—antibiotics won’t clear up a viral infection. The bad news is that you can’t speed up the healing process.
“It resolves on its own. It can take up to two weeks to go away completely,” says Dr. Gina Robinson, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital.
You could also use some over-the-counter artificial tears to relieve any discomfort. But don’t use any eye drops that promise to “get the red out,” cautions Herz.
“It doesn’t have any therapeutic effect,” she says. “It does not treat anything. It just helps it look pretty, whereas moisturizing drops are worthwhile.”
Schedule an eye exam to check for melanoma. That’s right: It’s possible to develop melanoma in your iris. Have your eyes checked regularly and be sure to sport sunglasses when it’s bright out.
Allergens and irritants
“People think that if their eye is pink, it must be infected,” says Herz. “But there are lots of things that can make your eye pink.”
For example, those seasonal allergies that drive you crazy every spring (or fall). You find that your eyes get red and itchy around the same time each year. The pollen or ragweed or whatever your least favorite allergen is may be creating what doctors call a case of allergic conjunctivitis. Your doctor might suggest using some moisturizing eyedrops to reduce the discomfort.
Chemicals and other substances can get into your eyes and irritate them, too, causing the whites of your eyes to redden. Air pollution can irritate your eyes, too. Be sure to flush your eye completely with clean water to rinse away any irritants, and consult your doctor about whether to use any eyedrops.
How contagious is pink eye?
Of course, you can’t pass your allergies along to another person. Same goes for irritants like smog or pollution or chlorine from the swimming pool that might make your eyes a little pink.
But you can easily spread the bacteria and viruses that cause pink eye. And too often, people do spread it, and pink eye quickly makes its way through a school or office.
“It’s pretty contagious,” says Robinson. “It’s very easy to get.”
That means you need to be vigilant about trying to not spread it.
When she has pink eye, McCroskey uses compresses on her eye to reduce the itchiness and clean up the leaky fluid. “I wash my hands very frequent–more than 10 times a day, and I avoid touching other people or sharing things like towels, washcloths, reading glasses, or anything else that touches my face,” she adds.
Those are good strategies, experts say. Try to keep your hands away from your face and eyes as much as possible. But if you do touch them, wash them thoroughly right afterward. Otherwise, you’ll be likely to touch common surfaces like counters, light switches, elevator buttons and handrails, leaving those germs behind for someone else to touch. And wash your sheets, towels, pillowcases, and other items.
What else should you avoid with pink eye?
A couple of other strategies to remember while you’re recovering from pink eye:
Don’t wear contact lenses.
When you have pink eye, your eye is already irritated and inflamed. Why add another layer of irritation by inserting your contact lenses?
“You shouldn’t wear your contact lenses when you have any kind of eye inflammation in general,” says Robinson.
Plus, if you have bacterial conjunctivitis, the bacteria could adhere to your contacts and stay there–or work its way down into your cornea. Keep your lenses in their case while you recover from pink eye, and wear your glasses until it’s all cleared up.
Don’t use makeup on your eyes.
Even if you can muster up the ability to completely avoid touching and rubbing your eyes (and smearing any makeup you’re wearing) while you have pink eye, it’s a good idea to swear off the mascara and eyeliner for the time being. You’d have to throw away any makeup products that get contaminated anyway.
When do you need to see a doctor for pink eye?
Often, your pink eye will get better without any additional problems. But occasionally, you might develop some symptoms that you need to get checked out. Here are a few reasons that should spur you to call a doctor:
If you’ve been using antibiotic eyedrops to treat a case of bacterial pink eye, you should notice some improvements within a couple of days. But if you don’t, that could be a sign that something’s wrong–and you should go ahead and call your doctor. Don’t wait for ten days, says Herz.
Another cause for concern: sensitivity to indoor light. This isn’t a typical symptom of an ordinary case of pink eye. It can be a sign of a bacterial infection of the cornea or something else that could potentially threaten your vision. Again, don’t wait around and see if it gets better on its own. Call right away.
“If you’re sensitive to the light, go see an ophthalmologist,” says Herz. “Not urgent care. An ophthalmologist.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seeing a doctor for follow-up care if you’re experiencing pain in one or both of your eyes.
If your vision starts getting blurry, or your eyes get even redder, call and request an appointment to see your doctor.
Check out these 5 more things you should know about your eyes.