Viral vs. bacterial pink eye

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 3 min read

You can tell a lot about a person by looking into their eyes, including when they aren’t feeling 100%. And red, irritated and goopy eyes are definitely a sign that something’s wrong. If you or your little one has these symptoms, it’s probably pink eye. And if someone in your household has this common eye infection, it’s important to understand if it’s viral vs. bacterial pink eye.

Pink eye basics

Pink eye is an infection of the conjunctiva or outer membrane of the eye. As with most infections, common symptoms include redness, inflammation and mild swelling. The infected eye is also likely to feel itchy and irritated – sort of like there’s sand in it. You may also notice your eye tears a lot, which can leave behind a crusty residue – especially in the morning.

Regardless of whether a pink eye infection is viral or bacterial, it’s super contagious. And you or your child can easily spread the infection to others through things like coughing or sneezing and shaking or holding hands. Pink eye can also spread when you touch surfaces like doorknobs, desks and toys that are contaminated and then rub your eye.

Viral vs. bacterial: Why it matters

Did your sniffles and sneezes give way to pink and goopy eyes? Did your child recently have the flu or an ear infection and then develop pink eye? Conditions like a common cold or other respiratory infections are often behind both viral and bacterial pink eye infections.

Many viral and bacterial pink eye symptoms – including redness of the whites of the eye, tearing, mild pain and crusting around the eye in the morning – overlap. But there are some symptoms that provide clues about what’s behind your infection.

Viral pink eye

  • Eye drainage that’s clear with a thin and watery consistency
  • Tearing and drainage that’s easily wiped away and manageable

Bacterial pink eye

  • Eye drainage that’s cloudy or colored and with a thick and goopy consistency
  • Your eye(s) tears and drains throughout the day – even when you wipe away

Pink eye treatment

A viral pink eye infection needs to run its course and should clear up on its own in about five days. During that time, it’s important to make sure you wash your hands a lot and avoid touching your eyes. If you spike a fever, stay home until you’re fever-free for 24 hours.

If you’re diagnosed with bacterial pink eye, prescription antibiotic eye drops will help clear up your infection. While you heal, take steps to avoid spreading the infection to your other eye and to other people. This includes not sharing towels or bedding. When antibiotic drops have been used for 24 hours, it’s safe to return to work, school or daycare.

Feel better while you heal

Pink eye symptoms can be really uncomfortable. Help ease itchy and irritated eyes, with the following tips.

  • Keep eyes lubricated– Use artificial tears like Systane or Refresh eye drops and keep the bottle in the refrigerator between uses.
  • Keep eyes cool – Put a washcloth in the freezer for 10 minutes and place on the infected eye. Make sure to use a clean washcloth each time.

Let’s be honest, the last thing you want to do when your eyes are red, tearing and itchy is go out in public. And that includes sitting in a clinic waiting room. Thankfully, you don’t have to as pink eye can be diagnosed and treated online.

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