Early-Stage Pink Eye: First Symptoms, Duration, and Contagiousness (2024)

Pink eye—or conjunctivitis—is the inflammation that affects the conjunctiva, or the membrane located inside the eyelid and covering the white part of the eye. Early signs of pink eye include irritation, redness, and watery eyes. Viruses, bacteria, or allergies can cause pink eye. It can start in one eye and then spread to the other.

This article covers the early symptoms of pink eye, how pink eye is diagnosed and treated, and when to contact a healthcare provider.

Early-Stage Pink Eye: First Symptoms, Duration, and Contagiousness (1)

What Are the First Signs of Pink Eye?

The first signs of pink eye include:

  • A gritty feeling in your eye(s)
  • Eye discharge that's white, green, or yellow
  • Eye irritation
  • Redness
  • Watery eyes

Keep in mind that these symptoms may not develop early on for everyone.

Other symptoms of pink eye include:

  • Crusting along your eyelashes when you wake up
  • Feeling as if there's something in your eye
  • Having blurry vision
  • Having sensitivity to light
  • Swollen eyelids

What Does Pink Eye Look Like?

How Pink Eye Symptoms Develop

Pink eye can have a few different causes. The cause of your pink eye determines how symptoms develop, as follows:

  • Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye, and it spreads through contact with people who already have it. Symptoms include red, burning eyes and discharge.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria. It usually causes redness, soreness, and a sticky type of pus.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis is a reaction to an allergen, including pets, pollen, cigarette smoke, and other environmental factors. Unlike viral and bacterial pink eye, allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious. It's common to have itchy, red, and watery eyes with allergic conjunctivitis.

How Pink Eye Is Diagnosed

A healthcare provider will typically diagnose pink eye using an eye exam and taking a patient history. Sometimes, the provider may also use a swab to test the eye drainage or discharge to pinpoint a specific type of infection and determine the appropriate treatment. It involves sending the drainage or discharge sample to a lab for analysis.

Conjunctivitis Self-Care

You may need to see a healthcare provider for pink eye. However, there are things you can do at home to ease any irritating symptoms, including:

  • Don't wear contact lenses while you have symptoms. Use a fresh pair of contacts when you're better since your old pair could be infected.
  • Don't wear eye makeup while you have symptoms. Also, get rid of your old makeup, which may be infected.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever as needed to help control pain.
  • Use OTC artificial tears to soothe the eye.
  • Use a warm, wet washcloth on your affected eye(s) for a few minutes. Repeat this procedure several times throughout the day, using a clean washcloth each time.
  • Avoid using Visine (tetrahydrozoline), a redness-reducing eye drop, as it may worsen your symptoms.

If your pink eye is due to allergies, you can take the following measures:

  • Use artificial tears to soothe the eye.
  • Use oral allergy medicine or allergy eye drops.
  • Place a cool, wet washcloth on your eyes for a few minutes.
  • If possible, identify and avoid what's causing your allergic reaction.

How to Identify and Treat Pink Eye in Babies

Prescription Medications for Pink Eye

Often, you can treat pink eye at home. However, if you visit a healthcare provider for pink eye, they may prescribe you medication. The type of medication will depend on the cause of your pink eye. Here are the types of medications you might get prescribed for pink eye:

  • Antiviral medications: These medications specifically treat viral infections. An antibiotic will not help viral conjunctivitis.
  • Allergy medications: For conjunctivitis caused by allergies, a healthcare provider may recommend prescription allergy medications and eye drops in addition to OTC options. These medications may combine more than one type of treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Bacterial conjunctivitis is rare and usually seen in infants or very sick patients in the hospital. Most commonly, a mucous discharge is seen in allergic conjunctivitis and a clear discharge in a viral infection. Both forms respond nicely to a course of mild steroids.

ANDREW GREENBERG, MD, MEDICAL EXPERT BOARD

Early-Stage Pink Eye: First Symptoms, Duration, and Contagiousness (2)

Other Conditions That Cause Similar Symptoms

When you have irritation or other symptoms, such as redness or watery eyes, your first reaction might be to think it's pink eye. However, many conditions can cause similar symptoms. These include:

  • Blepharitis: A condition marked by eyelid inflammation
  • Dry eye: When your eyes don't make enough tears, or the tears they make are of poor quality
  • Irritation: Often results from wearing contact lenses
  • Subconjunctival hemorrhage: A harmless accumulation of blood inside the eye after small blood vessels break open
  • A stye: A small bump that forms at the base of your eyelid

Red, watery, irritated eyes also could be a sign of more severe conditions, including angle closure glaucoma or a corneal ulcer. When you're unsure, contact a healthcare provider.

How Long Pink Eye Symptoms Typically Last

For many viral and bacterial forms of pink eye, symptoms usually clear up within one to three weeks. However, you may need prescription medication for more serious forms of pink eye. The medication could reduce the duration of the infection or your risk of spreading pink eye to others.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

You should contact a healthcare provider for pink eye if you have:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye discharge
  • Eye pain that you consider moderate to severe
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe redness
  • Symptoms that don't improve after a few days with home treatment

A healthcare provider can also guide you when you can return to work or school with pink eye. If you don't have a fever or other symptoms, a provider may say it's OK to return to your daily activities outside the home. If you still have symptoms and are in close contact with others, you may have to stay home longer to avoid spreading the infection.

If you have a newborn whom you suspect has pink eye, see a healthcare provider right away as it could be the sign of a more severe infection.

Summary

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is inflammation of the conjunctiva or the white part of the eye. Bacteria, a virus, or allergens can cause it. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious to others, but allergic pink eye is not. Symptoms include red, watery, irritated eyes with discharge.

Healthcare providers will examine the eye and and take a patient history to diagnose pink eye. See a healthcare provider for pink eye if you have moderate to severe eye pain, your symptoms aren't improving after home treatment, or you have a weakened immune system.

8 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Eye Institute. At a glance: pink eye. November 15, 2023.

  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Conjunctivitis: what is pink eye? April 25, 2023.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pink eye.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis: Diagnosis.

  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Quick home remedies for pink eye. April 27, 2023.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis: treatment. January 4, 2019.

  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Is it pink eye or something else? July 26, 2023.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis (pink eye) in newborns.

Early-Stage Pink Eye: First Symptoms, Duration, and Contagiousness (3)

By Vanessa Caceres
Caceres is a Florida-based health journalist with 15 years of experience. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and psychology and a master's degree in linguistics.

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