Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is one of the most common conditions affecting the eyes, especially in children. Red, watery, irritated eyes can be worrisome, but pink eye is rarely serious, and in most cases, it goes away on its own within a week or two.
That said, nobody wants to deal with eye pain, irritation, redness, and discharge, even for a few days. Let’s look at the causes of pink eye, when you should seek professional help, and which natural remedies touted as treatments for pink eye really work.
What Are the Different Causes of Pink Eye?
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation and irritation of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eye. There are three main types:
- Viral conjunctivitis: Most cases are caused by a viral infection, often the same viruses that cause colds, runny noses, and other upper respiratory symptoms. Highly contagious, this is the kind that can spread through daycare centers and schools. There are no specific medical treatments for viral conjunctivitis, although antibiotic eye drops, which are worthless against viruses, are often inappropriately prescribed.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis. Caused by a bacterial infection, this is the only type of conjunctivitis that responds to prescription antibiotic drops or ointments. Although it may only affect one eye, it too is highly contagious and can spread to both eyes. If the eye is intensely red and painful with thick, pus-like discharge, it may be bacterial conjunctivitis.
- Allergic conjunctivitis: Tearing, itching, burning, and redness that affect both eyes could be due to an allergic reaction to pollen, animal dander, smoke, chlorine in swimming pools, etc. If you have hay fever or other allergies, symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis may respond to antihistamine eye drops.
Should You See a Doctor?
Consulting your doctor or visiting an emergency room is generally unnecessary, since there is no medical treatment for viral conjunctivitis, the most common type. Painful, bloodshot eyes can be alarming, but pink eye is usually a minor viral infection that clears up in a few days to a couple of weeks, even without treatment.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to know which type you have. This is especially true of bacterial versus viral conjunctivitis. Both involve pain and redness, but viral infections are usually characterized by watery eyes, while bacterial conjunctivitis may produce thick, discolored, pus-like discharge.
If you are unsure, see your doctor. You should also seek medical attention if symptoms are severe or persist for more than a week.
What To Do for Symptom Relief & Infection Control?
The greatest concerns, regardless of the type of pink eye, are symptom relief and infection control. The standard recommendations for relieving discomfort are pretty good.
- Eye compresses. One of the most soothing treatments for pink eye is hot or cold compresses—moistened cotton pads or clean washcloths applied to affected eyes several times a day.
- Eye drops. Lubricating or “artificial tears” eye drops are also soothing to irritated eyes. Do not use red-reducing eye drops, tempting as they may be, because they may make symptoms worse. As noted, prescription antibacterial or antihistamine eye drops may be appropriate for bacterial or allergic conjunctivitis but not for viral infections.
Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly infectious, so it is important to clean the eyes several times a day and change pillowcases, cloths, and towels frequently. Whether you or a family member has pink eye, try to avoid touching your eyes, and wash your hands often.
Affected individuals should stop wearing contact lenses and eye makeup. To prevent reinfection, it is generally recommended to replace disposable lenses or disinfect hard lenses and discard eye makeup after the infection clears.
Do Any Alternative Remedies Help?
I have been asked about home remedies and natural treatments for pink eye that are supposed to relieve symptoms and speed healing.
After reviewing the medical literature, available products, and advice on numerous websites, I have to say there is little to no scientific support for most of them. Here is a brief overview.
There are many recommended variations on hot or cold compresses for pink eye. A popular one is chamomile or green tea compresses, either applied on cotton pads or moistened tea bags placed directly over the eyes. Mixtures of tea, honey, turmeric, berberine, or other herbs are also suggested. Some even advise placing raw potatoes, grated or sliced, on affected eyes.
I see no problem with diluted tea compresses, if you find them soothing. However, there are documented reports of allergic conjunctivitis developing after treating the eyes with chamomile tea compresses. I am not keen on the idea of putting even diluted herbs near the eyes, as they may be irritating.
Cleansers & Topical Treatments
A number of websites promote treating pink eye with aloe vera, neem and other essential oils, apple cider vinegar, colloidal silver, or coconut oil. The general advice is to cleanse or wipe the area around the affected eye with these natural compounds, or apply them to the eyelids.
Although most of these compounds have broad antimicrobial activity and I endorse them for several uses, there is no evidence to suggest they will speed recovery from pink eye. Plus, they may be irritating. I would not recommend putting them near the eyes.
Several brands of homeopathic eye drops are available, along with a few other types of eye drops that contain ingredients such as colloidal silver or chamomile. There are also suggestions to place natural ingredients like diluted apple cider vinegar or breast milk directly into the eyes.
Be very careful about what you put in the eyes, especially if they are already irritated. Products made specifically for the eyes, such as homeopathic eye drops, are fine and may provide some relief. Otherwise, do not put anything in your eyes before talking to your doctor.
Pink Eye Recap
If you were expecting a surefire natural treatment for pink eye, I am sorry to disappoint you. There is no magic bullet.
You can try alternative variations on warm or cool compresses and use homeopathic eye drops for symptom relief, but most of the alternative therapies for conjunctivitis are not ready for prime time.
I’ll close with one last piece of advice: Be patient. Pink eye is usually a minor infection that clears up on its own in several days.