Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is the infamously hard-to-hide infection that constitutes about 1% of primary care office visits in the US due to the expeditious contagion within its crusting mucus. There are ways to get rid of it fast, including and especially shuffling into a doctor’s office with your sunglass-adored head draped in shame. But there are also at-home methods one can try in the meantime or while waiting for the antibiotics to kick in.
SPY spoke with a panel of medical experts on pink eye treatment options at home — which ones are vetted, which ones are snake-oil-level scams with no medical backing, and which are somewhere in between. The best methods for minimizing the chance of contracting pink eye have overlap with the best ways to get rid of it fast, explore them all below.
Pink eye is an infection or swelling in the conjunctiva (hence the name – conjunctiv(a)-itis). When healthy, this thin, clear membrane acts as a protective layer to the white of the eye (the sclera) and inside of the eyelids. It also plays a part in healthy lubrication through the production of mucus and tears. When infected, the conjunctiva turns a telltale pink color and is often accompanied by the inability to appear on-camera in the team’s morning Zoom meeting, as well as a host of other common symptoms of pink eye.
Bacterial vs. Viral Pink Eye
The two most common causes of pink eye include viral — caused by an underlying virus like the common cold-causing adenovirus, as well as bacterial caused by bacteria that’s highly contagious but clears up to 2-3 days, on average. Seeing a doctor is the best bet for determining the type of infection and developing a treatment plan from there.
Benjamin Ticho MD, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at The University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary explained that “Bacterial conjunctivitis typically results in yellow or green pus discharge.” Meanwhile “the discharge in viral conjunctivitis is typically clear and relatively nonspecific; these patients commonly have swollen lymph nodes in front of the ear (preauricular).”
How To Get Rid of Pink Eye Fast
To help comprehensively answer this common query, we approached Dr. Nate Simmons, a board-certified, practicing ophthalmologist from Buffalo, NY. Dr. Simmons explained that the “best way to determine how to get rid of pink eye fast is to determine the underlying cause.” If a speedy recovery is the priority, the best course of action “when someone thinks they have pink eye is to see an eye care provider to obtain an accurate diagnosis.” Determining which type of pink eye you have can be beneficial because “the actual treatment of each type of conjunctivitis varies.”
Dr. Simmons expanded further on the treatment for the various types of pink eye.
“Viral conjunctivitis (the most common cause of pink eye) is a time-limited infection.” This means that “the body’s natural immune response will resolve the infection.” However, even though “antibiotics will not help this as the offending agent is not a bacteria but rather a virus”, there are occasions when “antiviral medications (pills and or eye drops) can help eliminate the infection.”
For the fastest way to get rid of bacterial conjunctivitis, Dr. Simmons explained that “once the appropriate eye drops and possibly pills are taken, this will resolve the symptoms rapidly.”
Lastly, for pink eye caused by allergies or irritants, symptoms will likely “improve if the offending agent is removed”. For sufferers of this type of pink eye with an unidentified cause, Dr. Simmons advises to “think about changing cosmetics and facial products such as soaps/moisturizers. Also, any eye drops the patient is currently using may need to be changed.”
Rinsing the infected eyes regularly, washing hands, changing out towels and avoiding contacts for a few days are all necessary at-home precautions to take when dealing with pink eye.
Here are a few more recommendations from SPY editors for at-home conjunctivitis remedies and ways to get rid of pink eye fast.
Systane High-Performing Eye Drops
Artificial tears are eye drops made from mild saline, and they’re one of the best ways to treat pink eye at home. Once approved by a doctor, one can use these eye drops to flush out some of the contaminants in the eye and relieve the dryness that is often associated with pink eye. In particular, the Systane Ultra Lubricant Eye Drops have been shown to soothe dry and gritty eyes and come with more than 19,000 five-star reviews on Amazon.
Amazon Basics Cotton Balls
One of the worst parts of having pink eye is the uncomfortable build-up of crust and mucus as well as constant secretions of liquid from the infected eye. Using clean hands, wet a cotton ball with warm water and wipe the liquid 2-3 times a day to keep things cleaner and healthier while you heal. After the eye has healed, these cotton balls are also a great option for skincare, makeup and first aid.
Lysol Laundry Sanitizer
Both the viral and bacterial forms of pink eye are highly contagious. Not only is it possible to spread pink eye to others, pink eye in one eye can spread to the other if not properly contained. It’s also possible to become reinfected if the bacteria or virus is left to fester on household surfaces. That’s why it’s important to sanitize everything, especially bedding, and clothing. Simply add some Lysol Laundry Sanitizer to each load of laundry to ensure all the germs causing your painful eye are killed.
Visine Red Eye Drops
In addition to their hydrating eye drops, Systane produces a line of eye drops made specifically for dealing with eye redness. These Visine Red Eye Hydrating Comfort Redness Relief Eye Drops are formulated to reduce redness and can be particularly handy for an important interview, wedding, or meeting up with friends. However, it’s important to understand this improvement may be temporary and may actually result in more significant redness afterward.
Amazon Basic Care Ibuprofen Tablets
Unfortunately, there are limited treatment options for viral pink eye and the infection simply has to run its course. But that doesn’t mean sitting with eye pain for days on end. Taking over-the-counter pain medicine, like these Basic Care Ibuprofen Tablets, can help ease discomfort and with 500 200 mg tablets in this bottle, you’ll get plenty of use out of it afterward for headaches, sore muscles, and other aches.
THRIVE Face Wash
Using a natural face wash won’t cure pink eye, but it can help ease the healing process as your antibiotics work under the surface. A simple, unscented face wash won’t irritate the eyes more than necessary, and it can help cleanse the sensitive area surrounding them as well. If you have sensitive, reactive skin this is a face wash you should be using anyway. The Thrive Natural Care Unscented Face Wash is formulated with plant-based ingredients to powerfully clean your skin without irritation.
Allergy Eye Itch Relief Eye Drops by Alaway, Antihistamine, 10 mL (Pack of 2)
A pink eye infection caused by an allergic reaction of some sort calls on antihistamine eye drops to help. Just like the antihistamines taken orally, these eye drops work to combat an allergic reaction and to reduce inflammation. Developed by Bausch and Lomb, the Alaway Antihistamine Eye Drops are formulated to begin working in three minutes and provide up to 12 hours of relief.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pink Eye
What Is Pink Eye?
Pink eye is an infection or swelling in the conjunctiva (hence the name – conjunctiv(a)-itis), otherwise known as the gland in the eye that produces hydrating liquid that keeps your eyeball and eyelid lubricated throughout the day. Infectious bacteria or a viral infection can cause it to become red, inflamed, and swollen — the most common symptom of pink eye.
How Do You Get Pink Eye?
Pink eye is super contagious. It can be triggered by a viral infection like the virus that causes the common cold or an infectious bacteria that can enter the eye through unwashed hands, an allergen or infected water.
How Long Does a Pink Eye Infection Last?
The infection can last for as little as two days with the right treatment or as long as two weeks if it’s the result of an underlying infection that takes a while to resolve.
How Often Should I Wash My Hands With Pink Eye?
A lot. Wash them right now. What are you doing?! Go go go!