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Viral vs Bacterial Pink Eye: What's The Difference?

Viral vs Bacterial Pink Eye: What's The Difference?
Shweta Chaubey

Conjunctivitis is an eye infection that causes inflammation in the outer layer of the eye, known as conjunctiva. It can also make the eye look red or pink, hence the name pink eye. It has three forms, namely, bacterial, viral, and allergic. In this article, we'll discuss the differences between viral and bacterial pink eye. 

Viral vs Bacterial Pink Eye: The Differences

Differences Viral Pink Eye Bacterial Pink Eye
  • It is caused due to a virus and can spread from nose to eyes.
  • It is contagious, and one can catch it if somebody sneezes or coughs and the droplets come into contact with the eyes.
  • It is caused due to the spread of bacteria to the eyes from the respiratory system or skin.
  • You can also catch it due to poor eye or hand hygiene.
Risk Factors
  • Anybody who has recently had cold or sore throat
  • Children
  • People with weak immune system
  • Watery discharge
  • Swollen eyelid
  • Vision might be blurry
  • Yellow or green sticky discharge
  • Itchiness
  • Swollen eyelid
How long does it last
  • Clears up within 7-14 days without treatment
  • Clears up within 10 days without treatment
  • No specific treatments
  • Cold compress, artificial tears, and NSAIDs can help
  • Often gets better without treatment within 5-7 days.
  • Antibiotic drops or ointment


Viral pink eye is caused by a virus that can also cause common cold and COVID-19. It is more common than bacterial conjunctivitis.

Certain bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumonia, can cause bacterial pink eye. Poor hygiene and leaving makeup on while sleeping can also lead to bacterial conjunctivitis. Both these types of conjunctivitis are contagious and can spread from one person to another via physical or sexual contact.

Risk factors

People who already have a cold or sore throat are more prone to viral conjunctivitis. Whereas bacterial conjunctivitis can most likely affect -

  • Children
  • People with weak immune system  
  • Those who have poor eye and hand hygiene  


Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell viral pink eye from bacterial one. If not treated with antibiotics, bacteria-caused conjunctivitis can become dangerous. While there are many similarities between the two in terms of symptoms, such as -  

  • Tearing  
  • Burning sensations  
  • Swelling in the outer layer of the eye 

The difference between the two lies in the type of discharge. Viral infection is accompanied by watery discharge, and bacterial pink eye makes the eye produce yellow or green discharge. Similarly, viral infection can lead to temporarily blurred eyesight, whereas bacterial infection does not.   

How long does pink eye last  

Usually, it takes up to fourteen days for viral eye infections to clear up and approximately ten days for bacterial conjunctivitis to improve. Using antibiotics can help improve pink eye symptoms if it is a bacterial infection. Antibiotics do not help in viral pink eye treatment.  


Most cases of conjunctivitis get better without any treatment. However, in the meantime, to relieve symptoms, you can use -   

  • Artificial tears to keep the eyes moist  
  • Cold compress to reduce the swelling  
  • Antibiotic eye drops if it is a bacterial infection
  • Antiviral drugs if it is a viral infection  

Conjunctivitis Self-Care: Home remedies for pink eye  

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen   
  • Change sheets and pillowcases every day.  
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses until the infection clears up.  
  • Avoid touching your eyes.   

When is pink eye not contagious?  

Pink eye is not contagious if it is caused due to bacteria and it has been 24 hours since you started taking antibiotics.    

When to seek medical care  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one should see a healthcare provider if the conjunctivitis is accompanied by -   

  • pain in the eye  
  • sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve when discharge is wiped from the eye  
  • Intense redness in the eye  
  • Symptoms that get worse or don't improve  
  • A weakened immune system  

The CDC also suggests that newborns with symptoms of conjunctivitis must be taken to the doctor right away.   

Products That Can Help with Pink Eye Treatment



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HPFY Shweta Chaubey

Shweta Chaubey

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Shweta Chaubey, has been a Health Products For You contributor since 2021. An advocate-turned-writer, her desire to create meaningful and positive content has brought her to HPFY and what better than writing ...

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