We’ve all been there. One night, you fall asleep and your eyes look and feel fine. The next morning, you wake up with an eye that’s inflamed, red and painful.
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Chances are good you have conjunctivitis. Otherwise known as pink eye, this condition can be caused by allergens, like pollen and hay. In other cases, it’s caused by a virus or bacteria.
“Viral pink eye typically comes from cold symptoms — like upper respiratory congestion or a runny nose,” explains nurse practitioner Shaneeka Rice, CNP. “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.”
Home remedies for pink eye
In general, you’re able to treat the symptoms or side effects of pink eye until the illness runs its course. But the type of pink eye you have determines which remedy might offer relief.
Hydrating your eye with over-the-counter 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 to soothe it.”
If your pinkeye is from allergies, antihistamine drops might also help.
Cool water rinses
Cool or tepid warm water rinses or compresses can help soothe your eyes. “If you have itchy eyes, avoid heat,” says Rice. “Heat makes the itch worse. You want to stick to a cool, tepid temperature for a rinse when you have itchiness.”
If your eye is inflamed, acetaminophen (like Tylenol®) or ibuprofen can be effective for some discomfort.
For allergies, medications like Zyrtec® might also help.
Pink eye remedies to avoid
In general, Rice says to avoid putting something in your eyes unless you’ve consulted with a healthcare provider first. That also goes for pink eye and other eye-related ailments.
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 babies less than 6 months old with eye discharge.
But 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.
Antibiotics for viral pink eye
If you catch pinkeye, you might automatically think you need antibiotics. That’s not necessarily the case unless you have the bacterial type, which is actually less common. “Most people only associate pinkeye with bacteria, or assume that when they have pink eye it’s from a bacterial infection,” says Rice. “However, the most common kind of pink eye that we see is viral.”
Unfortunately, antibiotics aren’t appropriate for viral pink eye — just like they aren’t appropriate for other viruses you might catch. So, if you do have viral pink eye, there’s not much doctors can recommend for treatment besides the supportive care previously mentioned — cool compresses or eye rinses, hydrating eye drops and waiting it out.
Can you get rid of pink eye overnight?
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 overnight.
“Bacterial pink eye gets worse over time if you don’t take an antibiotic,” says 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.”
How long does it take pink eye to go away?
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 for pink eye
There’s not much you can do to cure viral pink eye except wait it out.
However, there are times when seeing a doctor is warranted. 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,” Rice states.
For eye redness, pain or irritation, you can get your eye examined by a primary care doctor or express care. “I often hear, ‘I woke up with my eye crusted shut — I think I have pinkeye,’” says Rice. “But that’s not actually true. Everyone typically wakes up with some crust to their eyelids.”
There are also many reasons for eye redness or irritation, she adds. The air in your house could be dry if you’ve just turned the heat on, or air conditioning introduces dust in the air. “All of this can contribute to you developing crust in your eyes,” says Rice. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a bacterial pink eye.”
If you experience eye pain or vision changes, though — blurriness, double vision or loss of sight — you should see a doctor 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,” says Rice. “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.”