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Eye Drops for Pink Eye: Types & How to Get Them

Bacterial conjunctivitis is often treated with prescription antibiotic eye drops. Viral conjunctivitis can sometimes be treated with antihistamine eye drops.

Some people find relief from allergic conjunctivitis with over-the-counter eye drops. Others rely on prescription allergy medications.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a condition where the conjunctiva becomes pink or reddish color. 

The conjunctiva is the clear membrane that covers a portion of the white of your eye and also lines the inside of your eyelids. When it becomes irritated, it causes swelling, and your eye appears pink or red.

How to Treat Different Types of Pink Eye

There are three main types of pink eye: bacterial, viral, and allergic. COVID conjunctivitis is also possible.

Common eye infections are often put into a single bucket, but it is helpful to realize that the causes may be quite distinct. 

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis usually goes away on its own, but symptoms may be relieved with over-the-counter artificial tears. Your doctor may also prescribe antihistamine eye drops to relieve itchiness and redness or anti-inflammation eye drops to reduce swelling.

Viral conjunctivitis tends to get better in 3 to 10 days

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, expect your healthcare provider to prescribe antibiotic eye drops. These antibiotic drops are fast-acting, and you can expect your symptoms to usually improve in a couple days. 

Avoid close contact with other people, especially during the first 24 hours of taking antibiotics. After that point, you are less contagious. 

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is often treated with anti-allergy medications. This can be in the form of oral medication or eye drops.

An allergic reaction can cause the eye to be irritated, swell, and have a reddish color. Allergies may be from different substances, such as grasses, pollen, and/or dust mites. Allergy triggers can also be household cleaning supplies, perfumes, or lotions. 

There are four types of allergic conjunctivitis:

  • Seasonal conjunctivitis, which is caused by an allergy to pollen
  • Perennial conjunctivitis, which is often caused by pet allergies or allergies to dust mites
  • Contact dermatoconjunctivitis, which is caused by an allergy to cosmetics or eye drops 
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis, an allergy typically caused by contact lenses

Avoid contact with substances that trigger allergies as much as possible. 

COVID Conjunctivitis

Recent studies show that pink eye may be a symptom of COVID-19. Patients with more severe cases of COVID-19 are more likely to have pink eye.

Artificial tears can be used to keep the eyes moist and reduce irritation.

Over-the-Counter Eye Drops for Pink Eye 

If your pink eye is from a viral infection, artificial tears are the best over-the-counter option to relieve discomfort. These drops can keep the eyes lubricated and reduce burning and itchiness.

If the eyes are well lubricated with artificial tears, you will be less likely to rub them, which can cause further irritation. 

If your pink eye is caused by allergies, over-the-counter allergy eye drops may help relieve symptoms. These are generally labeled as antihistamine eye drops. 

Eye Drops to Avoid if You Have Pink Eye

As tempting as it may be, do not use anti-redness eye drops when you have pink eye. Visine and other “get the red out” eye drops can irritate your eyes further. 

If you only have pink eye in one eye, do not use drops in the other eye. This may inadvertently spread a bacterial or viral infection.

Don’t share your eye drops with anyone else.

Prescription Eye Drops for Pink Eye

Your doctor may prescribe eye drops based on the precise cause of your pink eye.

Antibiotic Eye Drops

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, bacterial conjunctivitis is the most common type of bacterial eye infection. Antibiotic eye drops can relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of the infection.

If you have allergic or viral conjunctivitis, antibiotic eye drops will not help.

Ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, tobramycin, and ofloxacin are commonly used antibiotics for bacterial conjunctivitis. 

Allergy Eye Drops

Both prescription and over-the-counter allergy eye drops may contain antihistamines to control allergic reactions. This can help to reduce redness and itchiness. 

Common brands of prescription antihistamine eye drops include Optivar, Livostin, and Emadine.  

Some allergy eye drops contain decongestants or mast cell stabilizers.   

Steroid Eye Drops

Steroid eye drops may contain steroids like prednisolone, which can reduce inflammation. Brands include Alrex and Flarex. 

When to See Your Doctor About Pink Eye

If you have an eye infection, you should see an eye doctor. Pain, swelling, redness, and pus draining from the eye are all symptoms.

If you notice light sensitivity, this can indicate an eye infection as well.

Since pink eye is highly contagious, it is prudent to see a doctor early. 

How to Use Eye Drops for Pink Eye

Antibiotic eye drops work best when you follow your doctor’s instructions precisely. 

The American Academy of Ophthalmology offers these recommendations for how to put in eye drops:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly. 
  • Take out contact lenses if you wear them.
  • Tilt your head back and look up.
  • Pull your lower eyelid down with one hand while you hold the eye drop bottle with the other.
  • Release one to two drops into the eye, according to the instructions.
  • Take extra precautions to not touch the tip of the eye drop container.

Be sure to use the entire course of eye drops, as prescribed. It may seem tempting to stop if you feel better, but medical experts advise taking the full dose.

What if Your Pink Eye Doesn’t Go Away?

Pink eye will generally go away within two weeks without treatment. If your pink eye doesn’t go away after this point or if it appears to worsen rather than improve on a daily basis, see an optometrist or ophthalmologist.

It could be a sign that something else is going on with your eye.

Dos & Don’ts With Pink Eye

Follow these tips to ensure you don’t spread pink eye to your other eye or to others:

  • Avoid close contact with others until your symptoms resolve.
  • Do not swim while you have the infection.
  • Do not share towels, sheets, or washcloths with others.
  • Do not share eye makeup or cosmetics.
  • Throw out old eye makeup after having conjunctivitis.
  • Do not share eye drops with anyone else.

Pink Eye FAQs

Can you get pink eye drops over the counter?

You can get allergy or antihistamine eye drops over the counter to treat allergic conjunctivitis. Artificial tears are available over the counter, and these can relieve some symptoms associated with pink eye, such as irritation, itchiness, and redness. 

Do not use anti-redness eye drops if you have pink eye.

What gets rid of pink eye fast?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to expedite healing of viral pink eye. It is similar to a viral cold. 

If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic eye drops will speed the healing process.

Apply cold compresses and use artificial tears eye drops to relieve symptoms. 

What eye drops do doctors prescribe for pink eye?

Antibiotics are typically prescribed for bacterial conjunctivitis. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory eye drops can help to reduce inflammation and redness associated with pink eye. 

Mast cell stabilizer eye drops may help to prevent or treat allergic conjunctivitis. Antihistamine eye drops can also treat allergic conjunctivitis.

How can you tell the difference between bacterial or viral pink eye?

Bacterial pink eye often triggers more redness than viral pink eye. There is frequently more discharge or pus with bacterial pink eye, whereas the eyes tend to water more with viral pink eye.

Does bacterial pink eye require antibiotics?

While antibiotic eye drops can speed the healing process, significantly reducing the timeline of contagion, most cases of bacterial pink eye will heal on their own without antibiotics. 

References

  1. Conjunctivitis: What Is Pink Eye? American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  2. Pink Eye: Quick Home Remedies. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  3. Treatment of Acute Conjunctivitis in the United States and Evidence of Antibiotic Overuse: Isolated Issue or a Systemic Problem? American Academy of Ophthalmology Journal.

  4. Common Eye Infections. (June 2018). Australian Prescriber

  5. Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). American Optometric Association.

  6. Viral or Bacterial Conjunctivitis. Tufts Medical Center. 

  7. Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis): Causes, Treatment & Prevention. Cleveland Clinic.

  8. Pink Eye. John Hopkins Medicine.

  9. Conjunctival Findings in Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019. (December 2020). JAMA Ophthalmology

  10. ‘Pink Eye’ Often a Symptom of COVID-19, and Infection Via Tears Possible. (April 2020). The University of California, San Diego Health.

  11. Conjunctivitis Symptoms & Treatments National Health Services.

  12. Is Your Doctor Prescribing the Wrong Treatment for Pink Eye? (June 2017). Science Daily.

  13. Antihistamines: Definition, Types & Side Effects. Cleveland Clinic.

  14. How to Put in Eye Drops. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  15. Treating Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  16. Medication for Conjunctivitis. NYU Langone Health.

Last Updated July 20, 2022

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