Antibiotics may help treat pink eye due to a bacterial infection. They are ineffective in treating the viral and allergic forms of pink eye.

Pinkeye, sometimes called conjunctivitis, does not always require treatment. However, antibiotics may help a person recover quicker from more serious cases of pink eye that bacterial infection causes.

With viral or allergic pink eye, using antibiotics will not provide any benefit. Several home treatments can also help reduce pink eye discomfort and speed recovery.

This article reviews antibiotics for pink eye, how to use them when necessary, and side effects, alongside other steps that may help people improve their symptoms.

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Doctors may sometimes prescribe antibiotic eye drops to treat bacterial pink eye. It depends on how severe the symptoms are. Often, symptoms of pink eye may resolve on their own within 1–2 weeks, and at-home measures may be enough to provide relief.

Antibiotic medications work to kill the bacteria causing the eye infection.

Antibiotics do not have any efficacy in treating allergic and viral conjunctivitis. Usually, a doctor prescribes antibiotics after a clinical examination, where they determine the cause of pink eye.

Differentiating between bacterial and viral pink eye

The symptoms of bacterial, viral, and allergic conjunctivitis may be similar. However, several distinctions may suggest the presence of a bacterial infection.

Redness, burning, and foreign body sensations in the eyes can occur in any type.

Viral or allergic conjunctivitis symptoms may include:

  • itchiness
  • watery discharge
  • light sensitivity

Viral conjunctivitis can lead to swelling of the lymph nodes or a follicular reaction, where tiny-domed-shaped nodules may appear in the conjunctiva. This is a thin layer of cells covering the inner surface of the eyelids and the whites of the eyes.

In case of bacterial infection, additional symptoms may occur, including:

  • mucopurulent discharge, or a thick discharge
  • the presence of small bumps — papillae — in the palpebral conjunctiva
  • morning matting of the eyelids

Learn more about the difference between bacterial and viral conjunctivitis.

Antibiotics for pink eye typically come in the form of eye drops, but they are also available topically.

Usually, antibiotic eye drops for bacterial conjunctivitis are prescription only. These may include:

  • ciprofloxacin (Ciloxan)
  • ofloxacin (Ocuflox)
  • levofloxacin (Iquix, Quixin)
  • gatifloxacin (Zymaxis)
  • azithromycin (AzaSite)
  • moxifloxacin (Moxeza, Vigamox)
  • polymyxin b/trimethoprim (Polytrim)

Learn more about eye drops for pink eye.

People must take antibiotics exactly as their doctor recommends. They should complete the entire treatment course, even if symptoms resolve.

It is also important for people never to share antibiotics with others or save them for later.

Taking antibiotics prescribed to others or taking them without following a doctor’s recommendations may cause side effects or worsen the condition.

Learn more about using antibiotics safely.

Antibiotics for pink eye may cause side effects. They can vary from mild to severe and include:

A person should immediately contact a doctor if they experience symptoms such as:

  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • swelling of the throat, tongue, lips, eyes, limbs, or face
  • hives
  • itching
  • skin rash

People may find relief from the pink eye by applying cold compresses or a warm, damp cloth to clean the eyes as necessary. These measures can reduce the itchiness and speed up recovery.

Learn more about at-home remedies for pink eye.

What to avoid

People should avoid using the same cloth to clean both eyes and wearing contact lenses during recovery.

Other steps a person can take to reduce the risk of getting pink eye or re-infecting themselves may include:

  • Washing hands frequently before and after eating, after going to the bathroom, or after sneezing and coughing.
  • Refraining from rubbing or touching the eyes.
  • Avoiding eye makeup during an active infection.

A person can also store, use, and clean contact lenses as an eye doctor recommends. This will help future prevent pink eye infections.

If a person thinks they may have an eye infection, they should visit a doctor. This is important for someone with a weakened immune system — for example, a person living with HIV. A doctor can determine the cause of the symptoms and recommend the most appropriate treatment, such as antibiotics.

People should also contact a doctor if the eye infection does not improve about 3 days after starting treatment.

Antibiotics only treat pink eye that is due to a bacterial infection. They do not have any effect on allergic and viral pink eye.

Still, most cases of pink eye typically do not require antibiotic treatment and resolve on their own within a couple of weeks. Keeping the infected eye clean and other home remedies can speed up recovery and improve the itchiness or discomfort that conjunctivitis can cause.