Jennifer Volk, N.P.
Changing the approach to pink eye
You wake up with a scratchy, red eye and goopy drainage. Should you:
- Go to your same-day care clinic?
- Submit an eVisit through Express Care Online?
- Call your primary care team?
- Treat it at home?
Based on recent evidence and research, your best option may be to try self-care at home and avoid going to work or school if the eye has drainage. Most cases of pinkeye (conjunctivitis) are caused by a virus. Antibiotic drops or ointments won't do anything to help alleviate the symptoms or make you less contagious. It is difficult to distinguish between viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, and both are typically self-limiting, meaning the illness will resolve on its own. Antibiotic drops have been shown to decrease the length of symptoms caused by bacterial conjunctivitis by eight hours.
Self-care for pink eye can include:
- Warm, moist compresses to the eye(s), using a different clean washcloth each time
- Lubricating eye drops, such as artificial tears; for age 3 and up, eye drops containing ketotifen can relieve the scratchy sensation
- For nasal allergy-like symptoms, antihistamines, such as loratadine, may provide relief
Eye symptoms may occur alone, but with viral conjunctivitis, you also may experience a runny nose, sore throat, cough or fever.
You should be evaluated by a health professional if you're having any of these symptoms:
- Any eye pain that is more than mild
- Blurry vision that doesn't clear with blinking
- Vision loss
- Warm, red swelling around the eye
- Worsening symptoms after three days with no associated cold symptoms
Certain people also should be seen, including:
- Infants less than 6 months
- Those who are immunocompromised
- Contact lens wearers experiencing any eye pain
- Anyone with recent trauma or surgery to or around the eye
Symptoms of viral conjunctivitis can last up to two weeks, but the worst typically are earlier in the course of the illness. Regardless of the cause of your pink eye, remember to discard any contaminated eye makeup. It's safe to return to work or school if the drainage is controllable and you follow good hand hygiene.
If you have further questions or concerns, contact the 24/7 Nurse Line or your primary care provider through the patient portal, or by calling your local clinic during regular clinic hours.
Watch a Mayo Clinic Minute video: What parents need to know about pink eye:
Jennifer Volk is a nurse practitioner in Family Medicine in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.