An eye cold is the viral form of conjunctivitis, or “pink eye.” It can cause symptoms such as itchiness, redness, watery eyes, and more. Various treatments can help alleviate symptoms.

Conjunctivitis is an infection of the conjunctiva, or 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.

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Symptoms of an eye cold can include:

Learn about the first signs of pink eye and what pink eye looks like.

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.

A person can also contract viral conjunctivitis through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, usually via hand-to-eye contact, or sharing cosmetics or towels with someone who has an eye cold.

Other viruses that can cause viral conjunctivitis include:

As an eye cold is a viral infection, antibiotics are not a viable treatment option.

Eye colds will typically resolve without treatment within 7 to 14 days. However, to help alleviate the symptoms, the following may help:

  • Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): A person can take NSAIDs such as ibuprofen to relieve the pain associated with inflamed eyes.
  • Artificial tears or lubricating eye drops: A person can use eye drops 4 times per day, or with preservative-free tears up to 10 times per day.
  • Warm compresses: A person can soak a clean cloth in warm water, wring it out, and gently apply it to closed eyelids.
  • Cool 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. This may be benefitcial for reducing itchiness.

To avoid spreading the infection, a person should use a fresh pad, ball, or cloth for each eye wipe.

In severe cases or herpes simplex or varicella-zoster virus, a doctor may recommend antiviral medication.

Learn more about eye drops for pink eye.

A doctor can typically diagnose an eye cold based on a person’s history and symptoms, as well as a physical examination of the eye.

It will most likely be an eye cold if it is accompanying a cold or a recent upper respiratory tract infection, or if the discharge is watery rather than thick.

The doctor may also swab the infected eye for testing in a laboratory, particularly if a person experiences chronic conjunctivitis or if symptoms do not respond to the current treatment plan.

Without treatment, an eye cold will typically resolve in 7 to 14 days. However, it may also take up to 2 to 3 weeks.

Child care services, schools, and workplaces may request that a person with an eye cold stay at home until the symptoms have cleared up, as eye colds are very contagious, usually for 10 to 14 days.

A person should talk with a doctor to determine when it is safe for them to return to work or school.

Learn more about how long pink eye can last.

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.

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 both eyes if only one eye has the infection
  • 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

Learn about proper hand washing.

Viral conjunctivitis is typically harmless and will resolve on its own. However, in rare cases, complications can occur. Reinfection is also possible.

For example, roughly 38.2% of those with herpes simplex conjunctivitis will develop complications with the cornea, and 19.1% may develop uveitis, which describes a group of inflammatory eye diseases.

Most eye colds will 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 contact their doctor if conjunctivitis does not resolve or if it keeps coming back. They should also seek medical advice if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • 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 — such as from HIV, cancer, or another medical condition or treatment — to contact a doctor if they have an eye cold.

All eye colds are conjunctivitis, but not all cases of conjunctivitis are eye colds.

There are three common types of conjunctivitis:

An eye cold is the viral form of conjunctivitis. Pink eye is the commonly known term for any type of conjunctivitis.

There are several conditions that may appear similar to an eye cold.

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

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

Keratitis is an infection of the cornea.

Symptoms typically include:

  • pain
  • blurry vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • watering eyes
  • eye discharge
  • eye redness

Without treatment, keratitis can lead to blindness.

How can a person get rid of a cold in the eye?

Eye colds usually resolve on their own within 7 to 14 days. In severe cases, however, a doctor may recommend antiviral medication, depending on the type of virus. A person can manage symptoms by taking pain relief medication, using artificial tears, and applying a warm or cool compress.

How can a person get rid of eye mucus?

A person can wipe away eye mucus by wetting a cotton ball or pad in cool or warm water and wiping it over their closed eye. It is important to use a clean pad or ball to prevent spreading the infection.

Can a cold turn into pink eye?

A cold may cause pink eye, or conjunctivitis, if the viral infection responsible for the cold gets into a person’s eye. This can happen, for example, with hand-to-eye contact.

An eye cold refers to viral conjunctivitis, a type of pink eye. It can cause symptoms such as swelling, redness, and itchiness.

Most cases of eye colds resolve on their own within 7 to 14 days. Various home remedies can help manage symptoms. In severe cases, a person may require antiviral medication.

It is important to contact a doctor if a person experiences frequent eye colds or if symptoms do not resolve. The doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis and advise on any medical treatments a person may need.