We all know that raising kids is a full-time job. And keeping your little ones healthy is one of the most demanding parts of that job description. No matter how many times you tell your kids to wash their hands and keep their fingers away from their eyes or out of their mouths, there’s no guarantee they’ll listen.

So, what do you do when the inevitable happens and your child gets sick? And what if you catch the bug too? In the case of conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, it often takes a combination of home treatment and help from a health care provider to get on the road to recovery.

Below, we explain everything you can do to get your little one or yourself relief from pink eye symptoms.

How you or your child may have gotten pink eye

Pink eye is often very contagious and can spread through direct or indirect contact – meaning people can give it to each other by touching, coughing and sneezing near each other, or by sharing objects. This is why covering coughs and frequent handwashing are so important in preventing the spread of pink eye. Pink eye can be contagious before symptoms are present and remain contagious until symptoms subside.

Neonatal conjunctivitis

It's also possible for babies to get pink eye during childbirth if the mother or birth parent has a sexually transmitted infection (STI) – this is known as neonatal conjunctivitis. However, STI screenings are a normal part of a prenatal appointment timeline. Doctors also take steps to protect babies from infection following birth, such as by giving them antibiotic eye drops.

Pink eye treatment for kids or adults: 3 steps to take

If you or your child has pink eye, getting fast relief is probably your top priority. Take these three steps to get the best pink eye treatment for you.

Step 1 of pink eye treatment: Get a diagnosis

Pink eye treatment options vary by the type of conjunctivitis. Most often, pink eye is a viral or bacterial infection. But pink eye also has noncontagious causes like allergies, as well as irritants like smoke or chlorine. Pink eye can also be mistaken for a stye, and vice versa.

So, getting a proper diagnosis will help you know the best way to treat the specific condition. A primary care doctor or clinician can usually diagnose pink eye and its cause quickly through a visual examination and questions about your or your child’s recent health.

If you’re not quite sure if an appointment is necessary yet, you can always call your provider’s nurse triage line for advice. If you’re a HealthPartners patient and plan member, you can contact our CareLine at 612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859 for free 24/7.

Pink eye treatment for babies

If you have a baby less than three months old and you think they might have pink eye, you should seek in-person care as soon as possible – either through your primary care provider or a local urgent care location. Pink eye and related infections pose a higher risk to babies.

Can you get pink eye treatment online?

Yes. Adults and most children can be treated for pink eye virtually – either through an online clinic or by video visit with a primary care doctor or clinician.

Step 2: Take any prescribed medicines as directed

Depending on the type of pink eye, symptoms often get better on their own within 1-2 weeks. But in some cases, a doctor or clinician may be able to prescribe medicines to help relieve symptoms or shorten the duration of an infection.

Treatments for viral pink eye

Since viral pink eye is caused by a virus and not a bacteria, antibiotics are not a treatment option. But the good news is that this type of pink eye – which is usually caused by a cold or the flu – usually lasts 5-7 days and clears up when the rest of the symptoms do.

Most often, home remedies to help relieve symptoms are the best treatments – and you’ll likely start to notice an improvement in 3-5 days. However, topical antihistamines are sometimes prescribed for symptom relief.

Treatments for bacterial pink eye

It’s possible for bacterial pink eye to resolve on its own, but antibiotics are often prescribed to shorten the duration and infectiousness of the condition, as well as provide some symptom relief.

If your child has this type of pink eye, it’s likely that they’ll need to stay home from school or daycare for a period of time. Bacterial pink eye symptoms may last for 5-7 days, but if your child starts a course of antibiotics, they’re typically safe to return to school or other activities after 24 hours if their symptoms have improved.

Antibiotic treatment for pink eye usually comes in the form of eye drops or ointment. If a care provider prescribes antibiotics for you or your child, it’s important to take the full course to avoid reinfection.

Allergic and irritant pink eye treatments

If you suffer from allergies, you’re likely familiar with certain remedies that can help relieve or manage your symptoms. So in the case of allergic pink eye, treatments are very similar to other allergy symptoms.

The first step is removing allergens or irritants as best you can. This could include washing your face more frequently, rinsing your eyes with saline solution or changing your clothes after being outside.

For symptom relief, over-the-counter medications like decongestants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and allergy eye drops will likely be recommended. But a doctor or clinician may also prescribe antihistamines or mast cell stabilizers to provide some relief.

Step 3: Use pink eye home remedies for some relief

Aside from any specific treatments prescribed by a doctor or clinician, there are a few things you can do to get effective relief from pink eye symptoms:

  • Keep eyes clean –  The discharge that pink eye creates is uncomfortable and it may be infectious. To remove it safely and gently, wipe a tissue or similar material from the inner edge of the eye to the outer edge. Lightly wet the tissue if necessary and use a clean one for each wipe so that nothing is rubbed back in.
    • Also wash your hands or your child’s hands for at least 20 seconds in warm water before and after touching the eyes.
  • Use compresses – Use warm or cool compresses (made by dampening a clean washcloth with water) to reduce swelling and redness. Use a clean washcloth for each eye and each application.
  • Try over-the-counter medicine – As we’ve mentioned before, several remedies like natural tear eye drops and NSAIDs are available without a prescription and can help manage symptoms like discomfort and inflammation. Some eye drops are made specifically for pink eye, and some have antihistamines included for allergic pink eye.

Get fast relief for pink eye

Pink eye is an extremely uncomfortable infection and taking the right treatment steps can help you or your child get relief more quickly.

Start by getting a proper diagnosis so you can get the best treatment for the type of pink eye you’re dealing with. From there, make sure to follow the treatment plan, whether it be home remedies or taking the full course of prescribed medications.