Flu season brings another (and maybe not as expected) threat: pink eye. That’s because viruses that cause the flu, the common cold and even COVID-19 can manifest in the eyes. In addition to giving your eyes a pinkish or reddish hue, conjunctivitis (the technical term for pink eye) can cause other symptoms, like irritation, itchiness and discharge.
“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,” said Dr. Jennifer Tsai, an optometrist practicing in New York City. Pink eye can result from a virus spreading from your own mucus membranes that are currently under attack, or through exposure to someone with a respiratory infection.
Here are the types of eye infections to look out for this flu season, what to do for home relief, and when to see a doctor.
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