Antibiotics for Pink Eye: What to Know

Your eye is swollen and red, indicating a case of conjunctivitis, known commonly as pink eye. The clear conjunctiva that covers the sclera (the white part of the eye) is inflamed. The blood vessels are swollen, making the eye appear pink.

You're not sure exactly what to do about this. Is this something you can count on to clear up on its own? In a word—usually. However, treatment is sometimes used to help pink eye resolve.

This article will highlight when it's important to reach out for help for pink eye, the role of antibiotic drops for pink eye, how other treatments may help, and how long it may take to be free of pink eye.

Person using antibiotic eye drops for pink eye

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When to Seek Medical Help for Pink Eye

While often it's not necessary to get medical help with pink eye, there are times when it's important to seek treatment. Here's what to watch for:

  • Eye pain
  • Blurred vision even after clearing mucus
  • Light sensitivity
  • A red eye
  • Lack of improvement or worsening of symptoms without treatment
  • Worsening of a bacterial pink eye despite at least one day of antibiotic use
  • A weakened immune system that may have difficulty combatting the infection
  • If a newborn has the condition

Antibiotics for Pink Eye

If you have a case of pink eye that's caused by a bacterial pathogen, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment. Such antibiotics can help speed recovery. Your immune system can often fight off pink eye in a week to 10 days. But with the aid of topical antibiotics, bacterial conjunctivitis will often go away in just two or three days.

Which Types of Pink Eye Can Be Treated With Antibiotics?

Only bacterial conjunctivitis can benefit from antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics are not useful for viral pink eye (the most common type) or for conjunctivitis caused by allergies or irritants.

Other Pink Eye Treatments

In most cases, your natural defenses will work to clear your pink eye infection. However, you can also take other steps to help soothe your eyes and promote healing. Steps to consider include:

  • Frequent handwashing and avoidance of touching your eyes
  • Applying a wet washcloth to the closed lids to help rid you of the crustiness
  • Using over-the-counter (OTC) drops such as artificial tears to lubricate eyes, antihistamine medication to fight itch, and vasoconstricting drops that tighten blood vessels to combat redness in the short term
  • Staying away from contact lens use while suffering from pink eye (contact lens use can irritate the eyes and also interfere with any medication or other drops applied and keep these from the surface of the eye)

How Long Does Pink Eye Last?

While the good news is that in most cases pink eye resolves on its own, you're likely wondering how long this may take. If you have mild bacterial conjunctivitis, this will likely start to clear up without treatment within about two to five days. Still, it may take as long as two weeks for this to completely dissipate.

Meanwhile, if you have a mild case of viral conjunctivitis, this will take a week or two to go away in most cases. But for some this may take as much as two or even three weeks to resolve.

Antibiotics won't do anything to help with viral conjunctivitis. But if you have a more serious virus such as herpes simplex virus or varicella-zoster virus causing the virus, your healthcare provider can prescribe antiviral medication to help combat these.

Summary

Many times with pink eye it's simply a matter of letting the condition run its course. But if you're in significant pain, you're noticing worsening symptoms or you have a weakened immune system, it's important that you reach out to an eye doctor or your primary healthcare provider.

If this is a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed a topical antibiotic drop or some ointment. If you have viral pink eye, antibiotics won't help. But for some viruses, a specific antiviral medication will speed recovery.

Even without treatment, bacterial infections will begin to go away in just a few days, and mild viral infections will take a week or two to dissipate.

A Word From Verywell

Most of the time, there's no need for antibiotic treatment for pink eye (even bacterial pink eye). In some cases, this can help speed recovery. If bacterial pink eye is lingering longer than expected, there are options. Talk to a healthcare provider to discuss whether antibiotics can help in your case.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best antibiotic for pink eye?

    That may depend somewhat on the bacteria that is causing the infection. In more severe cases, particularly if a Pseudomonas infection is the cause, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe a fluoroquinolone drop such as Moxeza (moxifloxacin), Iquix (levofloxacin), or Ciloxan (ciprofloxacin). Your healthcare provider will decide what is best suited for your particular case.

  • Can you take oral antibiotics for pink eye?

    Not usually. Most bacterial infections respond to topical antibiotic drops or ointments. But your healthcare provider may give you an oral prescription in cases of infections such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.

  • How can you tell if pink eye is bacterial or viral?

    An eye doctor or other healthcare provider can tell if you have a bacterial or viral case of pink eye by examining the eye and asking pertinent questions.

    If you recently had a cold or respiratory infection and have watery rather than thick discharge from the eye, this is likely viral conjunctivitis. But the pink eye is detected just after an ear infection, with thick mucus; it's usually bacterial.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis (pink eye): treatment.

  2. University of Wisconsin -- Madison. Pink eye.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Conjunctivitis.