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Regardless of what’s causing it, these pink eye home remedies can help relieve discomfort.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been there: At bedtime, your child’s eyes drift shut — only to open the next morning looking red, itchy and swollen.

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is inflammation of the clear tissue, called conjunctiva, that covers the whites of the eyes and inside the eyelids. It can affect one or both eyes and is highly contagious, especially among kids who are around others at school or daycare and don’t always practice good hygiene.

You may be tempted to run to your child’s doctor’s office for treatment. But, depending on the type, you may not have to. Here’s what to know about how to get rid of pink eye.

Pink eye symptoms

True to the name, pink eye causes the whites of the eyes to become red (or pink) and itchy. The affected eye tears a lot and has discharge that can be white, yellow or green. 

Other common signs of pink eye include:

  • Swollen, red eyelids
  • Itchy or burning sensation
  • Crusty eyelids
  • Mild sensitivity to light
  • A feeling of “sand” in the eye

Sometimes, especially with bacterial pink eye, there can be so much greenish-yellow pus that a child’s eyelashes stick together.

“Symptoms can vary depending on whether it’s caused by allergies, a virus or bacteria,” says Swathi Gowtham, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Geisinger. “If it’s viral or an allergic reaction, typically both eyes are affected from the start. But if it’s a bacterial infection, usually one eye gets infected and it spreads to the other eye a few days later, and symptoms are more severe.”

Pink eye treatments

Wondering how to get rid of pink eye? It all depends on what’s causing your child’s discomfort.

Viral

“Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of eye infection and goes away on its own,” says Dr. Gowtham. “It’s usually accompanied by cold or flu symptoms, such as a runny nose and congestion. It’s like getting the common cold in your eyes.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do except wait the viral version out. The eye infection usually clears up on its own in about one to two weeks along with the rest of your child’s symptoms.

In the meantime, pink eye home remedies can help relieve discomfort. Just be careful. Viral conjunctivitis is contagious while symptoms last.

Bacterial

On the other hand, bacterial conjunctivitis can require treatment. This infection occurs when bacteria get in the eye — usually because kids touch their eyes after touching something with bacteria on it.

Treatments include antibacterial eye drops, ointment or oral medications, which can help clear the infection and relieve symptoms within a few days. Just be sure to complete the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms improve.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is also very contagious. About 24 hours after antibacterial treatment, your child is no longer contagious and can return to school.

Allergic

If an allergy to pollen, animal dander or cigarette smoke is causing your child’s pink eye, symptoms typically improve once the allergen goes away. If it’s not possible to limit their exposure to the allergen, antihistamine medication and eye drops or anti-inflammatories can help relieve symptoms.

Fortunately, allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

“Because you don’t always know which is the culprit, it’s best to seek medical care if symptoms continue after a few days or worsen. Bacterial conjunctivitis may get worse if left untreated,” says Dr. Gowtham. “A provider can determine the underlying cause and prescribe an appropriate treatment plan to get your child feeling better quickly.”

Dr. Gowtham advises families to seek medical attention right away if their child:

  • Spikes a fever and has body aches
  • Has severe pain
  • Has changes in vision
  • Becomes sensitive to light

These symptoms could indicate other more serious health concerns.

Pink eye home remedies

For viral conjunctivitis, certain home remedies can ease symptoms and bring your child some relief.

  • Use a warm or cool compress to soothe and reduce inflammation. Soak a washcloth in cool or warm water, wring it out and press it gently to your child’s closed eyelids for a few minutes several times a day. Don’t use hot water, though. It could make symptoms worse. Just be sure to use a new washcloth each time — and separate washcloths if both eyes are affected — to avoid spreading the infection.
  • Try eye drops to rinse and hydrate the eyes. Over-the-counter eye drops can help relieve itchy eyes. Look for lubricating or artificial tears — not ones that treat redness, which could irritate the eyes further. Dr. Gowtham suggests putting them in the refrigerator for added relief. Because lubricant eye drops can blur vision, they should be used at bedtime. 
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve discomfort and inflammation for kids 6 months and older.
  • Skip the contacts. If your child wears contact lenses, have them switch to glasses until the pink eye has cleared up. Bacteria and viruses can live on the contacts and reinfect your child, so it’s a good idea to replace the lenses and case (and eye makeup, if applicable) once your child’s eyes are healthy.

Preventing it from spreading

When anyone in your house has pink eye, take precautions to prevent it from spreading to everyone else, including:

  • Frequently wash your hands (and your child’s) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, sneezing or coughing. If a sink isn’t available, alcohol-based sanitizer is the next best thing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes. It’s easy to spread viruses or bacteria on your hands to your eyes by touching them. If you must touch your eyes, wash your hands before and afterward.
  • Don’t share towels or bed linens with the infected person. Wash the fabrics in hot water, and make sure no one shares them or other personal items.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces in your home. These include doorknobs, countertops, phones and other shared items.

“Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are very contagious. The most important thing you can do is try to avoid close contact with the infected person,” says Dr. Gowtham. “But if you do wind up getting it, take comfort in knowing pink eye is a common condition that’s rarely serious and unlikely to cause long-term eye or vision damage if promptly detected and treated.”

Next steps:

Learn about pediatric care at Geisinger
How to keep your child healthy the entire school year
Does your child have cold symptoms? Here’s how to tell if it’s RSV.

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