An eye cold is the viral form of conjunctivitis, or “pink eye.” It is an infection of the conjunctiva, which is the thin layer of tissue that covers part of the front of the eye and the inside of the eyelids.
Eye colds are not usually serious, but they can sometimes cause complications.
In this article, learn about what an eye cold is, how to treat it, and how it is different from other eye conditions.
An eye cold is a form of conjunctivitis. A virus is typically the cause, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it begins in one eye but can spread to the other within days.
An eye cold can occur alongside symptoms of flu, colds, or respiratory infections.
An eye cold typically presents as red and swollen eyes, often with a watery discharge.
All eye colds are conjunctivitis, but not all cases of conjunctivitis are an eye cold.
There are three common types of conjunctivitis:
- viral conjunctivitis
- bacterial conjunctivitis
- allergic conjunctivitis
An eye cold is specifically the viral form of conjunctivitis. Pink eye is the commonly known term for any type of conjunctivitis.
According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), symptoms of an eye cold can include:
- a gritty feeling in one or both of the eyes
- an itching or burning sensation in one or both of the eyes
- excessive tearing
- watery discharge from one or both of the eyes
- swollen eyelids
- pink discoloration to the whites of one or both of the eyes
- increased sensitivity to light
- other cold- or flu-like symptoms
The most common cause of an eye cold is the adenovirus.
This is the group of viruses that can cause the common cold, along with several other common illnesses.
Although the root cause of an eye cold is a virus, there are a few ways in which viral conjunctivitis can occur.
For example, according to the AOA, the virus can spread to the eyes if a person blows their nose forcefully, causing the virus to spread from the respiratory system to the eyes.
A person can also contract viral conjunctivitis through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, normally via hand-to-eye contact, and sharing cosmetics or towels with someone who has an eye cold.
Other viruses that can cause viral conjunctivitis include:
- varicella-zoster, which is the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles
- picornaviruses, which can cause meningitis
Eye colds will typically resolve by themselves. However, in order to alleviate the symptoms, a person can:
- Take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: For example, a person can take ibuprofen to relieve the pain associated with inflamed eyes.
- Use artificial tears, or lubricating eye drops: A person can use these drops four times per day, or with preservative-free tears, up to 10 times per day.
- Use warm compresses: A person can soak a clean cloth in warm water, wring it out, and gently apply it to closed eyelids.
- Use cold compresses: A person can soak a cotton wool ball or pad in cold water and wring out the excess. They can then wipe this gently over closed eyes.
A person should use a fresh pad, ball, or cloth for each wipe of the eye to avoid spreading the infection.
According to the CDC, a doctor can normally determine the cause based on a person’s history and symptoms, as well as a physical examination of the eye.
Although conjunctivitis involves swelling and redness, other symptoms may vary depending on the cause.
It will most likely be an eye cold if it is accompanying a cold or a respiratory tract infection, or if the discharge is watery, as opposed to thick.
The doctor may also swab the infected eye for testing in a laboratory, but this is not very common.
The CDC state that without treatment, the infection will resolve in 7–14 days. However, it may also take up to 2–3 weeks.
Most childcare services, schools, and workplaces will request that a person with an eye cold stays away until the symptoms have cleared up, as eye colds are very contagious.
A person should talk to a doctor to determine when it is safe for them to return to work or school.
Similarly to the common cold, there is nothing a person can do to definitively prevent an eye cold. However, a person can take steps in order to lower the risk of spreading or contracting it.
Although there is not currently a vaccine that protects against an eye cold, there are vaccines available that can protect against some of the viruses that may cause an eye cold.
A person can get a vaccination against:
- pneumococcal infections
If a person has an eye cold
If a person has an eye cold, they should wash their hands with warm water and soap for roughly 20 seconds. It is also important to do this before and after cleaning the eyes and applying eye drops.
A person can also:
- Wash all bedding, washcloths, and towels in hot water.
- Stop wearing contact lenses until a doctor says that it is OK to wear them again.
- Avoid rubbing the eyes.
- Avoid using the same eye drop dispenser for infected and non-infected eyes.
- Clean eyeglasses often.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as towels and washcloths.
- Avoid swimming pools.
- Ensure that anything that touches the eye area, such as mascara, is only in use by one person.
If a person is around someone who has an eye cold
If a person is around someone who has an eye cold, they should:
- Wash the hands often.
- Avoid touching the eyes and face.
- Avoid sharing items that a person with an eye cold has used.
There are several conditions that may appear similar to an eye cold. The following sections will discuss some of these in more detail.
Some of these conditions are mild, but some can cause permanent vision loss. This is why it is important to seek a diagnosis and treatment.
Blepharitis causes the eyelids to become inflamed.
Some symptoms of blepharitis include:
- itchy or irritated eyes
- sensitivity to light
- dry eyes
- swollen eyelids
- crusty eyelashes
- frothy tears
Blepharitis can be a chronic condition, meaning that there is a high chance that it will come back.
Keratitis is an infection of the cornea.
Symptoms typically include:
- blurry vision
- sensitivity to light
- watering eyes
- eye discharge
- eye redness
Without treatment, keratitis can lead to blindness.
Viral conjunctivitis is typically harmless and will resolve on its own. However, in rare cases, complications can occur. Reinfection is also possible.
According to some research, those who have HZV have the highest risk of developing complications. For example, roughly 38.2% of those with HZV conjunctivitis will develop complications with the cornea, and 19.1% may develop uveitis, which describes a group of inflammatory eye diseases.
Specifically, possible complications may include:
- Punctate keratitis: This occurs when the upper layers of the cornea become inflamed.
- Conjunctival scarring: This occurs when the membrane that covers the eye becomes scarred.
- Corneal ulceration: This is an open sore on the cornea. A person can treat this using different types of eye drops.
Most eye colds will normally get better on their own. However, if the infection does not improve, a person may require a referral to a specialist eye doctor.
A person should seek assistance from a healthcare provider if they experience any of the following symptoms alongside the eye cold:
- eyes that are very painful
- sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve after wiping away the discharge
- eyes that are very red
- symptoms that get worse or do not improve after beginning treatment
It is also important for people with a weakened immune system — from a condition such as HIV, cancer, or another medical condition or treatment — to see a doctor if they have an eye cold.
An eye cold is one of the most common eye illnesses a person can get. Both adults and children can experience an eye cold.
Eye colds can be incredibly contagious, and although they are usually mild, they can sometimes lead to serious eye problems.
Not sharing personal items and always practicing good hand-washing techniques can both help prevent the spread of eye colds.
A person may wish to seek medical attention to ensure that it is not a more serious condition.