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  • Pink Eye Myths and Facts

    Reviewed By Natasha L Herz MD
    Sep. 19, 2023

    Pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is a highly contagious condition that causes red, itchy, goopy eyes. Getting rid of pink eye as soon as possible is the goal. But not all remedies are equal, and some are downright harmful. Learn to separate fact from fiction so that you can recover quickly and return to school, work and everyday life.

    Here are 10 common misconceptions about pink eye and the facts behind them.

    Myth 1: Only children get pink eye

    Fact: Pink eye affects both children and adults. There are three types of pink eye (bacterial, viral and allergic) and they can affect people of all ages. 

    • Bacterial pink eye, caused by an infection from bacteria, is more common in children.
    • Viral pink eye, caused by illness with the same bug as the common cold, is the most frequent type of pink eye and occurs more often in adults.
    • Allergic pink eye, which is a reaction to an irritant such as pollen, smoke or pool chlorine, strikes adults more often than kids.

    Myth 2: Pink eye is transmitted by direct contact

    Fact: Pink eye that is caused by bacteria or virus is highly contagious. It can spread from person to person both by direct contact with an infected eye and by touching surfaces contaminated with someone's pink eye germs.

    Viruses can live a long time on objects like doorknobs and towels. If you touch your eye and face, and then touch one of these objects, you could spread pink eye to others in your household. Sharing washcloths with, or borrowing eye makeup from, someone with pink eye can also spread infection.

    Allergic pink eye is the exception to this rule. One person’s allergies to pollen or dust can not be transmitted to another person. 

    Myth 3: Pink eye is highly contagious

    Fact: Not all types of pink eye are contagious. Allergic pink eye is not contagious at all. Bacterial pink eye can be spread to another person from the time you develop symptoms until about 48 hours after starting antibiotic treatment. Viral pink eye is infectious for as long as you have symptoms. In some cases, it’s possible to catch pink eye from someone before they even develop symptoms.

    Myth 4: Pink eye always requires antibiotic treatment

    Fact: If bacteria is causing your pink eye, your doctor can give you a prescription for antibiotics to help shorten the course of infection. But antibiotics won’t help pink eye caused by a virus or allergies.

    Viral pink eye doesn’t require treatment unless it’s caused by a sexually transmitted infection, herpes simplex virus or the varicella-zoster virus, which produces chickenpox and shingles. If pink eye was caused by any of these infections, it must be treated with antiviral medications to avoid causing vision loss.

    Prescription or over-the-counter eye drops that contain antihistamines can be used to treat allergic pink eye.

    Myth 5: Pink eye home remedies are dangerous

    Fact: Certain home remedies are not only safe but can also help your eyes feel more comfortable while you heal from pink eye. These include over-the-counter lubricating eye drops, warm or cold compresses and, for allergic pink eye, anti-allergy eye drops. It goes without saying that you should avoid contact with whatever you’re allergic to, because allergic pink eye will continue until the source of your allergies is removed.

    Be careful — pink eye can easily spread from one eye to the other. Hold the tip of the eyedrop bottle away from your eye when applying the drops, so that it doesn’t become contaminated with germs that can spread to your unaffected eye.

    If you’re unsure whether a home remedy is safe, consult your doctor before trying it.

    Myth 6: All pink eye home remedies are safe

    Fact: It’s not safe to use breast milk or redness-relieving eyedrops such as Visine for pink eye. Doing so can make your symptoms worse or introduce other bacteria into the eye that can cause a more serious infection. As a rule of thumb, do not put anything in your eye that hasn’t been approved by your doctor.

    Myth 7: It's ok to wear makeup when you have pink eye

    Fact: You should stop using eye makeup until your pink eye has cleared up. Although makeup is not always the cause of irritation or infection, it can become contaminated and spread virus and/or bacteria from an infected eye to a healthy one. To be safe, discard and replace any eye makeup (and applicators) that you used prior to infection. Don’t share eye makeup with others.

    Myth 8: Wearing contact lenses with pink eye is ok

    Fact: If you have pink eye, you should put away your contact lenses and not begin wearing them until you have recovered. Replace disposable lenses and carefully disinfect your lens case before resuming wear.

    Myth 9: It's ok to share bedding and towels when you have pink eye

    Fact: If you have viral pink eye, you should not share a bed or towel with anyone until the eye heals. Use a clean towel or tissue every time you touch your face or eyes and replace your pillowcase daily. If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, switch out your pillowcases and towels 48 hours after starting antibiotics and then resume your normal hygiene. 

    Myth 10: Pink eye is not serious enough to warrant a doctor's appointment

    Fact: Most of the time, you can treat pink eye at home until it goes away on its own. But other times there may be a more serious cause behind eyes that appear pink or red that is unrelated to pink eye. Call an ophthalmologist or seek medical care immediately if you have any of the following symptoms accompanying eye redness: 

    • Sensitivity to light, especially if it’s severe
    • Blurry vision or a decrease in vision
    • Eye pain
    • Large amount of eye discharge, especially green or yellow