March 22, 2024/Eye Care

Here’s How To Get Rid of Pink Eye Fast

Eye drops and cold water rinses can help speed up healing for viral and allergen-related conjunctivitis, but a bacterial infection will need antibiotics

Person with pink eye

We’ve all been there. One night, you fall asleep and your eyes look and feel fine. The next morning, you wake up and you’ve got one eye sealed shut and the other is inflamed, red and painful. Chances are you’ve got conjunctivitis, otherwise known as pink eye. But you can’t just put life on hold until this passes. You need to take care of this fast.

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Nurse practitioner Shaneeka Rice, CNP, explains which treatments help with a faster healing process, which ones you should skip and what you can do to avoid spreading it around.

Can you treat pink eye on your own at home?

Pink eye usually resolves on its own when it’s given time to heal, but home remedies can certainly help minimize some of the symptoms you’re experiencing. Different kinds of pink eye might also respond to different kinds of treatment, so it could help to know what kind you have.

Pink eye can be caused by allergens like pollen and hay. Or it can be caused by a virus or bacteria.

“Viral pink eye typically comes from cold symptoms, like upper respiratory congestion or a runny nose,” explains Rice. “You get bacterial pink eye when some type of dirt or debris gets into your eye. Maybe your hands are dirty and you rub your eye, or you come in contact with somebody who already has it, and then you touch your face.”

If you have an allergen-related pink eye, it will tend to resolve once you’re no longer exposed to that allergen that’s triggering your symptoms. But if you have a viral version of the condition, much like other viruses, you’ll have to wait until your immune system is able to fight it off, and focus your efforts instead on relieving symptoms and reducing the spread of infection. And bacterial infections could even be solved faster with the added help of antibiotics — but only if it’s a bacterial infection.

“Most people only associate pink eye with bacteria or assume that when they have pink eye it’s from a bacterial infection,” notes Rice. “However, the most common kind of pink eye that we see is viral.”

Home remedies for pink eye include:

  • Hydrating eye drops such as artificial tears.
  • Cold compresses.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers.

And you can also stop pink eye from spreading by:

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“If there are ever any concerns, please always see a medical professional for advice,” states Rice. “Having an evaluation to determine which pink eye you may have is vital in reducing potential spread and that is just as important as treatment.”

Home remedies for pink eye

In general, you want to focus on treating the symptoms or side effects of pink eye until the illness runs its course. These methods can be most helpful for providing relief no matter the kind of pink eye you have.

Cold compresses

Pink eye can cause inflammation and irritation around the eye that’s infected. A cold compress can help reduce some of that inflammation and soothe some of the associated symptoms.

You can make a cold compress by soaking a small washcloth or paper towel in cold water, wringing it out, and then folding it over the affected eye. If only one of your eyes is infected, make sure you only cover the infected eye and that you only use the cold compress once. You don’t want to accidentally transfer the infection to your uninfected eye and run the risk of reinfection. If both of your eyes are infected, use a single cold compress on each eye.

Eye drops

Hydrating your eye with over-the-counter (OTC) artificial tears or saline drops is a good solution. “The irritation that comes from the eye could be because it’s dried out,” says Rice. “Or it could be due to your environment, such as if you have dust from heating/cooling systems in your house. If you hydrate your eye, that usually helps soothe it.”

If your pinkeye is from allergies, OTC antihistamine drops might also help.

Cool water rinses

Cool or tepid warm water rinses can also help soothe your eyes and clean out gunk or debris that’s clogging up your vision or making it difficult to open your eyes.

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“If you have itchy eyes, avoid heat,” advises Rice. “Heat makes the itch worse. You want to stick to a cool, tepid temperature for a rinse when you have itchiness.”

Over-the-counter medication

If your eye is inflamed, acetaminophen (like Tylenol®) or ibuprofen can be effective if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort. For allergies, medications like Zyrtec® might also help.

Pink eye remedies to avoid

In wanting to rid yourself of pink eye, you’re probably willing to try anything and everything. But before you start panicking, you should know that some sources online touting certain home remedies can actually be hurtful. Plus, they aren’t scientifically proven to help get rid of conjunctivitis. In some of cases, you could even develop a worsening infection.

Overall, Rice says to avoid putting something in your eyes unless you’ve consulted with a healthcare provider first. That goes for pink eye, as well as other eye-related ailments.

Touted remedies to avoid include:

Breast milk

You might have heard people say putting breast milk in your eye is beneficial because it has antibodies. A 2021 study also found that a drop of breast milk could be an effective treatment for breastfed (chestfed) babies less than 6 months old with eye discharge.

But other studies have shown it to be ineffective against most common causes of pink eye. And Rice says there’s “No statistical research” that says breast milk is an effective treatment for pink eye in adults.

“It could actually make eye symptoms worse,” she cautions because it could introduce new bacteria into your eye and cause a more serious infection.

Urine washes

Whether based on a cultural background or because of something read or seen online, some people have used urine eyewashes in an attempt to treat conditions like pink eye. Because it’s not sterile, bacteria are always present in urine, so it can cause a variety of other infections if you get it inside your eyes. It can also worsen the irritation that you’re already experiencing. If you want to try an eyewash, cold, clean water is the best source to rinse your eyes.

Visine and other red-reducing eye drops

Remember, eye drops marked as “artificial tears” are good if you have pink eye, but you want to stay away from eye drops that reduce redness, like Visine®. In some cases, eye redness drops will make pink eye symptoms worse and cause your eyes to burn more than normal.

Herbs and other foods

These aren’t sterile or medically approved as a treatment for pink eye. Unless you’ve received approval from a healthcare provider first, refrain from putting herbs and food products in your eyes even in small amounts, as you could run the risk of cutting your eye or causing more irritation.

How long does it take pink eye to go away?

If you use these pink eye home remedies to soothe your symptoms, you’re probably hoping it will go away overnight. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. If you have pink eye from allergens, it can go away quickly, assuming you treat it with antihistamines and other proper care. But the bacterial and viral forms of pink eye won’t go away so soon.

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“Bacterial pink eye gets worse over time if you don’t take an antibiotic,” clarifies Rice. “With viral pink eye, it depends on how your cold symptoms go.”

For example, if you have a cold with congestion, your post-nasal drip might drain down the back of your throat or through your ears or eyes.

“If your congestion is really built up in the sinuses, you’re going to get discharge from your eyes because it has nowhere to go,” explains Rice. “That will take days to get better.”

Cold symptoms generally last about two weeks, although viral pink eye typically goes away in five to seven days. And as long as you take antibiotics, bacterial pink eye also lasts about five to seven days.

When to see a doctor about your pink eye

There’s not much you can do to cure viral pink eye except wait it out. But there are times when seeing a doctor is warranted. Again, symptoms of bacterial pink eye get worse over time without an antibiotic.

“Typically, you’ll have a red and inflamed eye, and you might have some eyelid swelling,” says Rice. “You’ll also have a thick, yellowish or greenish discharge and crust that doesn’t improve throughout the day or over the course of several days.”

Viral pink eye can also become bacterial pink eye over time at any point when you’re sick.

“If you introduce any type of debris or dirt into your eyes, you can develop bacterial pinkeye,” she adds.

If you experience symptoms for more than a week or develop any of the following symptoms, you may want to get evaluated by a healthcare provider to see what’s going on:

  • Green or yellow discharge from your eye.
  • Pain in your eye.
  • Vision changes like blurriness, double vision or loss of sight.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Body aches.
  • Rashes.

Vision changes, specifically, are an important reason to see a healthcare provider right away. These could be symptoms of something serious, like a stroke or brain tumor, or another health concern.

“You could have an abrasion or a scratch to your eye,” Rice continues. “You can also get something called a subconjunctival hemorrhage, which is where the vein ruptures in the eye. You don’t typically do anything for it. However, it can be pretty scary-looking.”

Sometimes, pink eye in children can also be a symptom of measles, so that might also be a reason to reach out to a provider right away if your child hasn’t been vaccinated, is experiencing other symptoms or if you’re aware of a local outbreak occurring.

At the end of the day, if you experience any of these symptoms and you’re concerned about their cause or wonder how best to take care of them, make an appointment with a healthcare provider to see how best to handle the situation.

“Ensuring proper treatment of any health concern is essential,” emphasizes Rice. “If there are ever any questions or concerns regarding your eye health, please see a medical professional for evaluation, advice and treatment. Always take your eye health seriously, and do not simply rely on home remedies. Seek the advice from health professionals whenever there is a concern.”

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