There are times when it is important to seek medical care for conjunctivitis (pink eye), as the treatment sometimes depends on the cause. However, this is not always necessary. To help relieve some of the inflammation and dryness caused by conjunctivitis, you can use cold compresses and artificial tears, which you can purchase over the counter without a prescription. You should also stop wearing contact lenses until your eye doctor says it’s okay to start wearing them again.
When to Seek Medical Care
You should see a healthcare provider if you have conjunctivitis along with any of the following:
- pain in the eye(s)
- sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve when discharge is wiped from the eye(s)
- intense redness in the eye(s)
- symptoms that get worse or don’t improve, including pink eye thought to be caused by bacteria which does not improve after 24 hours of antibiotic use
- a weakened immune system, for example from HIV infection, cancer treatment, or other medical conditions or treatments
Newborns with symptoms of conjunctivitis should see a doctor right away.
Most cases of viral conjunctivitis are mild. The infection will usually clear up in 7 to 14 days without treatment and without any long-term consequences. But in some cases, viral conjunctivitis can take 2 to 3 weeks or more to clear up.
A doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to treat more serious forms of conjunctivitis for which there is a specific treatment, such as those caused by herpes simplex virus or varicella-zoster virus. Antibiotics will not improve viral conjunctivitis; these drugs are not effective against viruses.
Antibiotics, usually given topically as eye drops or ointment, can help shorten the length of bacterial conjunctivitis, reduce complications, and reduce the spread of infection to others. If your doctor prescribes antibiotic eye drops or ointment, the infection should clear within several days.
However, mild bacterial conjunctivitis may get better without antibiotic treatment and without any complications. It often improves in 2 to 5 days without treatment but can last up to 2 or 3 weeks. The use of antibiotics is associated with increased antibiotic resistance and increased costs, and should be a shared decision between the doctor and the patient. 
Conjunctivitis caused by an allergen (such as pollen or animal dander) usually improves when the allergen is removed from the person’s environment. Allergy medications and certain eye drops (topical antihistamine and vasoconstrictors), including some prescription eye drops, can also provide relief from allergic conjunctivitis. In some cases, a combination of drugs may be needed to improve symptoms. Your doctor can help if you have conjunctivitis caused by an allergy.
1 Crounau H, Kankanala RR, Mauger T. Diagnosis and management of red eye in primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81:137-44.Top of Page
- Page last reviewed: June 30, 2016
- Page last updated: June 30, 2016
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