UNC Health Care
Illustration of eye with pink on whites of eye

Is That Gunk in Your Eye Conjunctivitis?

Waking up with your eyes sealed shut is a telltale sign of conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye. Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin, clear lining of the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelids.

Affecting children and adults, conjunctivitis is one of the most common and treatable eye conditions in the world. Here’s what you need to know about pinkeye to keep your eyes healthy.

Types of Conjunctivitis

“There are several things that can cause this inflammation,” says Jeffrey Keil, MD, medical director of UNC Urgent Care. “The most common causes are a viral or bacterial infection.”

A virus, such as a cold, causes viral conjunctivitis. This type of pinkeye is highly contagious but will usually clear up on its own within several days without medical treatment. Viral conjunctivitis is also typically accompanied by a runny nose or cough.

Meanwhile, a bacterial infection is responsible for bacterial conjunctivitis. Also extremely contagious, this type of pinkeye causes crusty, sticky, yellow discharge or buildup in the eyes. In some cases, the discharge is severe enough that your eyelids may be stuck together when you wake up.

During bacterial conjunctivitis, the infection usually starts in one eye and moves to the other, whereas a viral infection commonly starts in both eyes.

A third type of pinkeye is allergic conjunctivitis, caused by eye irritants such as pollen, dust and animal dander. Like seasonal allergies, this type of pinkeye is more common seasonally, though it can also flare up year-round.

“Even if you’re not allergic, just the act of getting dust, sand or stuff like that in your eye can cause inflammation of the lining,” Dr. Keil says.

How to Avoid the Spread of Conjunctivitis

Because viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious, it’s important to practice good hygiene.

Viral conjunctivitis is spread through coughing and sneezing, while bacterial conjunctivitis is spread through direct contact with infected hands or items that have touched the eye.

“Avoid touching or being around others with pinkeye, as well as items that have touched your eyes. And don’t forget to wash your hands often,” Dr. Keil says.

Don’t go to work or send your child to school with pinkeye. If your child has conjunctivitis, tell his or her teacher so extra steps can be taken to sanitize the classroom. “You’re always most contagious before you actually come down with the symptoms,” Dr. Keil says.

Even if you’re feeling better, ask your health care provider when you or your child can be around others without risk of spreading an infection.

Conjunctivitis Treatment

Treatment for pinkeye depends on the type of conjunctivitis. Like other viruses, viral conjunctivitis will run its course and does not usually require treatment, though warm compresses can help speed up recovery.

For bacterial conjunctivitis, doctors may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops. Allergy medications can also help relieve symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis.


If you think you have pinkeye, see your doctor. UNC Urgent Care locations diagnose and treat conjunctivitis. Visit uncurgentcare.org to find the location closest to you.