Is Pink Eye Rubbing You the Wrong Way?

How to identify your ailment and feel better.

Eye after surgery in the morning after

Conjunctivitis, or "pink eye," is inflammation or infection of the lining of the eye, called the conjunctiva. It may be caused by one or several factors, including allergens, irritants, abrasions, bacteria, and viruses.

Most cases of pink eye will simply run their course, but a doctor should determine if you have a case of pink eye that needs treatment with prescription medicine. In rare situations, pink eye that is severe or left untreated can cause permanent vision loss or damage to the eye. Consider the three most common causes of pink eye and what you can do to help alleviate your symptoms:

Pink Eye Due to Allergies

Red, itchy eyes are a common complaint during allergy season. Seasonal conjunctivitis is usually due to ragweed, pollen, or other allergens that are around at certain times of year. Perennial conjunctivitis is due to contact with allergens that are around at all times of the year, such as mold spores, animal dander, dust mites, and feathers. It's worse in dry, warm weather and lessens with rain and cool temperatures.

You can often tell if conjunctivitis is due to allergies when it involves both eyes. Symptoms include watery eyes, itchiness, and mucous discharge. Dark circles under the eyes, or "allergic shiners," may be present. You may also experience sensitivity to light.

What You Can Do

Using saline irrigation and cold compresses can help alleviate symptoms. Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this only irritates them more.

Preservative-free artificial tears are a helpful way to flush out allergens. They also form a barrier to prevent allergens from coming into contact with the eye. One trick is keeping artificial tears in the refrigerator, so they provide cooling relief.

Although topical over-the-counter redness-reducing agents can be used, second-generation antihistamines are more effective. Try using ketotifen (Alaway, Zaditor). If your symptoms are severe, you may need to see a doctor, who will most likely prescribe a prescription eye drop for short-term use, such as a steroid.

[See A Survival Guide to Spring Allergy Season.]

Pink Eye Due to Viruses

Viral conjunctivitis is very common. Symptoms usually resolve within five to 14 days, but it's highly contagious. It spreads through direct contact with contaminated hands, pool water, and personal items.

This kind of pink eye can affect one or both eyes. You may have symptoms in one eye but then develop symptoms in the other eye as well. It often comes with an upper respiratory infection, and symptoms include red eyes, itchiness, and a watery or mucous discharge.

What You Can Do

Avoiding contact with others is important to prevent spreading viral conjunctivitis. Don't rub your eye, as this can cause the virus to spread into the other eye. Cold compresses and artificial tears typically alleviate symptoms. Viral conjunctivitis may require the attention of a doctor, and antibiotics may be necessary to prevent a bacterial infection.

[See Top Recommended Hand Sanitizers.]

Pink Eye Due to Bacteria

Bacterial conjunctivitis often looks like viral conjunctivitis, but it's less common. A typical complaint by people with bacterial conjunctivitis is awakening to a feeling that their eyes are "glued shut."

What You Can Do

Sometimes bacterial conjunctivitis can cause complications in children, particularly eye infections. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic eye drop, usually for five to seven days.

Pink eye from bacteria often comes from other infections in the ears, throat, or sinuses. If that's the case, you must get appropriate treatment for these other infections.

[See Top Recommended Antibacterial Soaps.]

Note: This article was originally published on May 24, 2012 on It has been edited and republished by U.S. News .