Is Pink Eye Rubbing You the Wrong Way?


Patients learn approaches for treating different forms of conjunctivitis.

Patients learn approaches for treating different forms of conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis, or “pink eye,” is inflammation or infection of the lining of the eye, called the conjunctiva. It may be caused by 1 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 a prescription medication. In rare situations, pink eye that is severe or left untreated can cause permanent vision loss or damage to the eye. This article will discuss the 3 most common causes of pink eye and what you can do to help alleviate your symptoms.

Pink Eye Due to Allergies

Red, itchy eyes is 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 (year-round) conjunctivitis is due to contact with allergens that are around at all times of year, such as mold spores, animal dander, dust mites, and feathers. It is 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 the eyes, as this can only irritate them more.

Artificial tears are especially helpful. Preservative-free artificial tears can flush out allergens. They also form a barrier to prevent allergens from coming into contact with the eye. A helpful tip is to use artificial tears that are kept in the refrigerator to 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.

Pink Eye Due to Viruses

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type. Symptoms usually resolve within 5 to 14 days. It is highly contagious, however, and is spread through direct contact with contaminated hands, pool water, or personal items.

This kind of pink eye can affect 1 or both eyes. You may have symptoms in 1 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. Do not rub your eye, as this can cause spread into the other eye. Cold compresses will alleviate symptoms.

Viral conjunctivitis may require the attention of a doctor. Antibiotics may be necessary due to the risk of developing a bacterial infection. Artificial tears will help alleviate symptoms. Referral to an eye doctor is necessary if symptoms do not resolve on their own.

Pink Eye Due to Bacteria

Bacterial conjunctivitis often looks like viral conjunctivitis, but it is less common. A typical complaint by people with bacterial conjunctivitis is awakening to the eyes “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 5 to 7 days.

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

Dr. Wisotsky is a retail pharmacist in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.


1. Riordan-Eva P. Chapter 7. Disorders of the Eyes & Lids. In: McPhee SJ, Papadakis MA, Rabow MW, eds. CURRENT Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 2012. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2012. Accessed March 1, 2012.

2. Albrecht, S. Conjunctivitis. US Pharm. 2011;36(4):29-34.

3. Henderer JD, Rapuano CJ. Chapter 64. Ocular Pharmacology. In: Brunton LL, Chabner BA, Knollmann BC, eds. Goodman & Gilman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. 12nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011. Accessed March 1, 2012.


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