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Health Service

Vassar College

What is Pinkeye?

Pinkeye is an inflammation of the membrane of the eye and inner surface of the eyelids. Pinkeye can be caused by an allergic reaction, a viral infection or a bacterial infection. Pinkeye does not cause visual loss or blurring of vision.


Allergic pinkeye is not contagious. It cannot be spread from person to person. This condition is usually seasonal, causes intense itching, watery discharge, minimal redness, if any, and may produce swelling in the eye area.


Viral pinkeye is more common in older children and adolescents. It often accompanies an upper respiratory infection.

Hand washing and decreasing hand-to-eye contact are important steps in preventing the spread of viral pinkeye. Often only one eye is affected, the discharge is watery or mucoid, and there is significant redness. The eye may feel irritated but rarely very painful.


Bacterial pinkeye produces a thick yellow or green discharge and maybe some redness. There may be swelling of the eyelid.

Routine hand washing and decreasing hand-to-eye contact are important steps in preventing the spread of bacterial pinkeye.

How is it spread? (Viral and Bacterial Only)

Pinkeye is spread through direct contact with the discharge from the infected person’s eyes or respiratory tract. You can get pinkeye from someone’s fingers or from sharing their eye makeup, clothing, towels, and washcloths.

How is it treated?

With bacterial pinkeye, take all medications as prescribed even if you start to feel better. Most viral infections need no treatment and will resolve after several days to a week. Allergic pinkeye may respond well to antihistamines and/or eye drops specific for allergies.

If the secretions makes your eyelashes stick together, which usually occurs in the morning, put a warm wet washcloth on your eye to soften the crusts. This may need to be repeated several times. Gently wipe the crusts from your eyelashes.

Do not scratch or rub your eyes - it will make the infection worse or may spread the infection to the other eye.

How is it prevented?

Handwashing and general cleanliness is the best way NOT to get pinkeye. Avoid sharing bath towels, washcloths, and makeup.