Over The Counter Pink Eye Medicine

Mild side effects can include slight burning or stinging, blurred vision and light sensitivity. Some drugs can produce more serious side effects, like worsening irritation or redness, eye pain or significant changes to your vision.

How to Get Rid of Pink Eye Fast

You wake up in the morning and open your eyes… at least you try to. One eye seems to be stuck shut, and the other feels like it’s rubbing against sandpaper. You’ve got pink eye. But you also have a life and need to feel better fast.

Keep reading for a fast-acting pink eye treatment plan, plus ways to keep others from getting it.

First step: Is it bacterial?

To help you treat your pink eye the fastest, it’s important to make your best guess as to what type you have. There are four common causes of pink eye:

Viral is the most common, followed by bacterial. Viral basically means you have a cold in your eye — in fact, you’ll often have it along with a cold or upper respiratory infection.

Bacterial pink eye often occurs along with an ear or strep infection. It usually causes a lot more mucus and irritation than other pink eye causes.

If you’re having bacterial pink eye symptoms, the fastest way to treat them is to see your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotic eye drops. According to a review from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, using antibiotic eyedrops can shorten the duration of pink eye.

Antibiotic eyedrops can shorten the duration of bacterial pink eye

It’s important to note a few things here. First, your pink eye will probably go away on its own, even if it’s bacterial.

If you have bacterial pink eye and you’re looking for the fastest way to get rid of it, eye drops can help.

Note: Antibiotic eye drops aren’t going to help the other causes — viral, allergic, or irritant. This is because in those cases, bacteria isn’t the reason you have pink eye.

Second step: Soothe your eye(s)

If you have pink eye in only one eye, your goal is to treat the affected eye without infecting the other eye. If your other eye gets infected, that will extend the length of the illness.

Keep anything you use on the affected eye away from the other eye. Also, wash your hands as much as possible, especially after you touch your eye.

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Steps you can take to help your eye feel better include:

  • Place a warm, damp washcloth over your affected eye. Leave it on for a few minutes. This should help to loosen any stuck-on gunk from your eye so it can open more easily.
  • Wash your hands and use a new damp washcloth on the other eye if both of your eyes are affected.
  • Apply lubricating eye drops, usually labeled “artificial tears,” to each eye. Don’t let the tip of the eye dropper touch your eye. If you do, throw it away because it’s contaminated.
  • Wash your hands after applying eye drops.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

These steps can help minimize irritation so your body can keep fighting whatever is causing your pink eye.

Third step: Don’t let anyone else get it

Pink eye is highly contagious. Because you’re trying to get rid of it fast, you don’t want to give it to someone else and then get it right back after your first round resolves.

To do this, practice some eye hygiene tips:

  • Change your pillowcase and sheets every day.
  • Use a clean towel every day.
  • Wash your hands after you come in contact with potentially contaminated items and after you touch your eyes.
  • Toss contact lenses that may have come in contact with your eyes as you were getting pink eye.
  • Toss mascara and clean eye makeup brushes with soap and water to prevent recontamination.

Don’t share anything that touches your eyes (like mascara or eyedrops) with others.

Prescription and over-the-counter medication for pink eye

Sometimes, pink eye (conjunctivitis) doesn’t require medicine — it simply goes away on its own. Other times, medication is recommended to reduce the severity and duration of the condition. Remember to ask your doctor about any pink eye or conjunctivitis medications or remedies before trying them.

Over-the-counter pink eye medicine

Generally speaking, there aren’t any over-the-counter (OTC) medications that will treat viral or bacterial conjunctivitis. However, they may help alleviate symptoms.

Artificial tears are often the first OTC treatments recommended by doctors. Preservative-free tears can help reduce eye inflammation and dryness that accompanies pink eye.

OTC antihistamine, decongestant and vasoconstrictor eye drops can reduce the redness and irritation of viral pink eye. All three work to shrink the size of the blood vessels along the surface of the eye.

  • Antihistamines block histamines, part of your body’s immune response to an infection or allergy. Histamines cause allergic reactions and the widening of blood vessels. This translates into irritation you can see and feel.
  • Decongestants specifically constrict blood vessels in the eye, reducing redness.
  • Like decongestants, vasoconstrictors also specifically target blood vessels.
  • Mast cell stabilizers inhibit the release of histamines and can provide additional itchiness relief. Some mast cell stabilizers are OTC, but some require prescriptions. Medication containing ketotifen fumarate is often available over the counter.
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For viral pink eye, OTC combinations can include the drugs naphazoline and/or pheniramine.

Patients with allergic conjunctivitis have a few more options. A doctor may recommend an over-the-counter allergy medication, taken orally to reduce the body’s overall response to allergen(s).

More potent antihistamine eye drops will require a prescription. But mast cell stabilizer, olopatadine, is a common OTC alternative.

Prescription medication for pink eye

If an eye doctor recommends treatment for a viral or bacterial pink eye infection, it will almost always require a prescription and pickup from your local pharmacy.

Antibiotic eye drops are the main treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis, but they aren’t always necessary. Most cases of bacterial pink eye are mild and heal on their own within one to two weeks without any treatment, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

A true bacterial infection, however, typically does not self resolve and will require antibiotics. In addition to others, your eye doctor may prescribe eye drops containing one of the following antibiotics:

  • Erythromycin
  • Bacitracin
  • Ciprofloxacin
  • Azithromycin
  • Levofloxacin
  • Ofloxacin
  • Moxifloxacin
  • Gatifloxacin

Some types of bacterial pink eye may also require oral antibiotics, but this is less common.

Viral conjunctivitis almost always goes away on its own and can’t be treated with antibiotics. However, antiviral drugs may be used in more serious, rare cases.

Bacterial and viral pink eye can be very contagious. Even with medication, you can prevent further spread by addressing sneezes, coughs and any physical contact with caution and washing your hands often and thoroughly.

They can also both be treated with topical (eye drop) steroids to boost healing time. This is not very common.

More severe cases of allergic conjunctivitis are generally treated with a steroid eye drop. They may also benefit from stronger prescription antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers, usually in the form of eye drops.

  • Alcaftadine
  • Epinastine
  • Bepotastine
  • Emedastine
  • Azelastine
  • Cromolyn
  • Lodoxamide
  • Nedocromil

Can pink eye medicine have side effects?

Like any medication, side effects can occur. These are usually mild, but can vary in severity.

Mild side effects can include slight burning or stinging, blurred vision and light sensitivity. Some drugs can produce more serious side effects, like worsening irritation or redness, eye pain or significant changes to your vision.

Individual drug labels can provide additional information on potential side effects or complications.

When needed, steroid drops can cause the pressure inside your eye to increase. Your eye doctor may recommend monitoring your eye pressure, especially if you have or are susceptible to glaucoma.

If you have itchy, red eyes and think you might have pink eye, don’t self-prescribe medicine or other treatment without consulting an eye doctor first. A trained eye care practitioner can examine your eyes in detail, rule out other conditions and decide if eye drops for pink eye are needed.

Page published on Friday, August 21, 2020

Medically reviewed on Tuesday, May 11, 2021

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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