Pink Eye: Understanding Its Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

More than just a nuisance, conjunctivitis can lead to serious infection if left untreated. Here's what to know and how to handle it.

A close-up image of a young male face with a pink eye (conjunctivitis). See more in my portfolio

Medically reviewed in February 2021

Updated on November 28, 2022

One of the more popular topics at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, had nothing to do with top athletes failing to medal or dropping out of competition. It was longtime sports commentator Bob Costas’ eye infection, called pink eye, or conjunctivitis. Often thought to be an eye condition common in kids, adults can and do get it.

For Costas, the timing couldn’t have been worse. When he went on air at the beginning of the winter games, the telltale redness around one eye was evident. Before long the condition had spread to both, making it necessary for Costas to take time off from his anchoring duties.

To learn more about this condition and how it spreads, we turned to Rolando Toyos, MD, ophthalmologist and Medical Director and Founder of Toyos Clinic in Tennessee and New York City.

What is pink eye?
Pink eye is the common term for conjunctivitis, which is inflammation and swelling of the thin outer skin of the eye. The most common form of pink eye is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms usually start within 24 hours of exposure. Allergies or some toxic irritant to the eye, like soap, may also cause it.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include redness around the eyes, itchiness, irritation, a burning sensation, or feeling that there’s something in the eye. Eyelids may be swollen, there may be more tearing than usual and vision may be blurry. It can take up to two weeks for all symptoms to resolve.

How is pink eye spread?
Pink eye is very contagious, which is why it's recommended that someone who has it separate themselves from others. 

Conjunctivitis is spread much the same way colds are spread, which is why it’s thought to be more common in kids. The virus is on their hands and kids tend to touch everything, including their eyes.

If one eye has a viral infection, it can easily spread to the other eye. That’s why patients are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, to avoid touching their eyes, and to use paper towels to dry their face after washing so that the towel can be disposed of.

How is pink eye treated?
If it’s a viral infection, there is no antibiotic you can take to make it go away. The most you can do is manage the symptoms by using artificial tears and cold compresses. Sometimes an allergy drop may relieve some of the redness and itching.

Over-the-counter drops intended to relieve everyday redness are not recommended. These products make the redness worse after you stop using the drops and won’t give much relief. Since there is no immediate treatment, waiting out pink eye requires patience.

Should I see my healthcare provider (HCP) if I have pink eye symptoms?
A small percentage of people get bacterial pink eye, which is why you should see your HCP. They can take a swab to see if it’s viral or bacterial. If it’s bacterial an antibiotic will be prescribed, but 99 percent of the time a virus causes pink eye.

Can conjunctivitis cause any long-term vision problems?
It will not cause any decrease in vision unless you also have an infection of the cornea, which leaves scars. This condition is rare in patients with pink eye.

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