Your eyes are the window to your wellness. They can reveal things like your blood pressure, nutritional intake, risk of stroke and age-related vision issues. So when it comes to a bout of illness you come down with this winter, the general-health-to-eye pipeline may be no different.
Viruses that cause the common cold, the flu and COVID-19 can manifest in conjunctivitis, the medical term for pink eye. In addition to giving your eyes a pinkish or reddish hue (not what most people are going for), it can cause other symptoms like irritation, itchiness and discharge. While it’s made its rounds as one of the more sneaky symptoms of COVID-19, the idea of a virus causing eye irritation is nothing new, according to Dr. Jennifer Tsai, an optometrist practicing in New York City.
“When you have a viral infection, that can lead to eye-related symptoms, especially if you touch the eye or you’re around someone that has it and they’re coughing or sneezing,” Tsai explained. This means pink eye can spread from your own mucus membranes that are currently under attack from a virus or through exposure to someone else with a respiratory infection.
Here are the types of eye infection to look out for this flu season, what to do for home relief and when to see a doctor.
What viruses can cause pink eye?
The most familiar seasonal viruses — the common cold, the flu and now COVID-19 — can all cause viral pink eye. Some research from 2021, for example, found that as many as one in 10 people with COVID-19 experienced eye symptoms, though the American Academy of Ophthalmology says conjunctivitis from COVID is much more common in children than it is in adults.
Tsai says that the most common cause of viral pink eye is infection with the adenovirus, a virus that causes mild cold or flu symptoms in most people, which also spreads more widely during flu/respiratory virus season. Lesser-known viral culprits of pink eye also include the herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes cold sores, Tsai said. This can spread if virus from a cold sore touches the eye, or it can reoccur in outbreaks.
Viral vs. bacterial pink eye symptoms
In order to find the right relief for pink eye and learn if you’ll need medical treatment, you need to find the root cause of your pink eye: is it bacterial or viral?
Viral pink eye symptoms, according to Tsai, commonly include an itching feeling in the eye, along with watery discharge. Other symptoms can include redness or burning.
Viral pink eye will also likely be present in both eyes; it may start in one eye but will quickly spread to the other, she says.
Bacterial pink eye is caused by an infection or injury to the eye, Tsai says, including infection from contact lenses. If you have bacterial pink eye, it’s more likely you’ll experience a thick, yellowish, or sticky discharge from your eye along with more eye pain and blurry vision. (The AAO notes that bacterial conjunctivitis doesn’t always cause discharge.) A big clue that you’re suffering from bacterial pink eye, according to Tsai, is that it’s in one eye, though both eyes can be infected.
While pink eye from a viral infection can be managed at home in most cases (more on that below), and milder bacterial pink eye cases will also typically clear up, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you have eye pain, vision problems or other symptoms of a severe eye infection. Your treatment, or whether you can relieve pink eye at home, will also depend on the type of eye infection you have.
How to treat (and avoid spreading) pink eye
Most cases of viral pink eye are “self limiting,” Tsai said, which means they’ll probably resolve on their own within two weeks. But if you have bacterial infection, you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotic eye drops to help kill the bacteria that’s causing your symptoms.
Tsai said that no matter the cause or severity of your pink eye, it’s a good idea to see an eye doctor just in case. If you have symptoms that affect or blur your vision, cause eye pain, light sensitivity or a feeling that something is stuck in your eye, get seen as soon as possible.
Because most pink eye cases caused by a virus will resolve at home, managing pink eye will be based on easing your itchy or irritating symptoms. Here are some tips from Tsai:
- For comfort, apply a cold compress to the eye. Anything soft and cold will do, but there are also eye masks like these made for cooling.
- Use artificial tears to soothe your eyes.
- Use allergy drops for itchy eyes. A third culprit of pink eye, besides viral or bacterial infection, is allergies. Antihistamines found in allergy eye drops can help with this irritation.
In acknowledgement of the eye drop recalls and safety concerns surrounding some brands of artificial tears, Tsai said to continue to avoiding drops that don’t meet safety standards. She also advises people avoid Visine and Clear Eyes drops, because they contain ingredients that can constrict blood vessels in your eyes. For eye drop recommendations based on specific needs, you can read this CNET list of eye drops.
To avoid spreading pink eye, follow these tips from the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology:
- Don’t reuse towels after you wash your face
- Try not to touch your eyes; wash your hands right away if you do
- Don’t use makeup while you have an eye infection
- Don’t wear contact lenses while you have an infection