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What is an Eye Cold?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress

An eye cold is a type of acute viral infection that can cause redness, itching, and tearing in one or both eyes. The condition is also known as viral conjunctivitis and pink eye, and it is commonly accompanied by respiratory and sinus problems. Eye colds generally do not respond to antiviral drugs or other types of medical treatment, so patients are simply instructed to rest and wait for the virus to run its course. Symptoms typically resolve in two to four weeks after their onset.

Several different viruses can cause an eye cold. The most common cause is a widespread family of pathogens called adenoviruses. Herpes simplex, the influenza virus, and the agents responsible for mumps and measles may also be responsible for infection. Most viruses that can lead to eye colds are highly contagious and can be transmitted through direct contact, sharing towels and toiletries, or drinking from the same glass as an infected person. Children are at the highest risk of developing eye colds because their immune systems are not as well equipped to combat viruses.

Eye redness from infection.
Eye redness from infection.

The first symptoms of an eye cold may include increased tearing and redness in the whites of the eyes. As inflammation worsens, the eyelids may become swollen, tender, and itchy. A watery clear or white discharge can flow from the tear ducts, which might lead to further irritation and burning sensations. Occasionally, a person with an eye cold experiences blurry vision and light sensitivity. Other symptoms such as a sore throat, coughing, fever, and breathing difficulties may be present if the infection spreads to the lungs.

Eye drops help relieve swelling and redness in eye.
Eye drops help relieve swelling and redness in eye.

It is important to seek medical advice at the first signs of an eye cold. A primary care doctor can usually diagnose the condition by carefully inspecting the eyes and eyelids and asking about symptoms. A sample of blood or eye discharge may be collected and analyzed to determine the specific virus involved. After making a diagnosis, a doctor can explain different treatment options.

A diagram of a human eye.
A diagram of a human eye.

Eye colds due to herpes simplex infections may be relieved with antiviral drugs, but most other common pathogens are unresponsive to medication. Patients are encouraged to use cold compresses and moisturizing eye drops to reduce swelling and irritation. If inflammation is severe enough to affect vision, a doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid ointment or injection. While waiting for an infection to go away, a patient is usually instructed to wash his or her hands regularly and avoid close physical contact to reduce the chances of spreading the virus. Most people who follow their doctors' orders are able to recover fully in less than one month.

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Discussion Comments


Somebody recommended Neosporin below and I need to caution that this could turn out really, really bad if they happen to be allergic, and a lot of people are without knowing it. Risky as hell.


Every time I get cold it heads right to my left eyeball. That eye swells straight shut and is blood red. It will seep blood for a month. Nastiness.


I think I have a cold in my eye, but I also have extreme puffiness on the lid of my eye and no signs of redness.


When I was a young child, the doctor told my mother to put Neosporin in my eyes when I had pink eye. Back then, I got pink eye several times and when the Neosporin was put in my eyes, my infection cleared up immediately -- overnight. The real trick is to put a little bit in both eyes at bedtime, and by morning, your infection is gone and your eyes are no longer red. This really works.


Is this something that my child should stay home from school for if she has it?


I get red eyes with a cold, but the majority of my symptoms are elsewhere, like in my sinuses and throat. I can't imagine having to deal with swollen eyelids for two weeks! That would be unbearable, because I'm a big baby about anything hurting my eyes.


I've had some of these eye cold symptoms before, but I think it must have been just some mild irritation instead. It went away after a couple of days, and I believe that if I had been sick with an actual virus, it would have lasted much longer.

Getting something in your eye, particularly something that you can't see, can cause swelling, itching, and redness. There have been times when I experienced these things but could see nothing in my eye. I just kept flushing it with water and using eye drops, and after a couple of days, the problem went away.

I would say that if you try these methods and they don't help, you probably have a virus. In that case, you might need a doctor's help.


This is such a relief. I started noticing the blur after a recent migraine attack, and I thought it was permanent eye-damage, but I'm in the middle of a hay-fever and I have the eye-cold in the eye that's affected with this blurry vision.


@ddljohn -- Hey, that is a great question. I just had a viral conjunctivitis two months ago and my doctor explained all this to me. Only viral conjunctivitis affects one eye. If it is an allergic or bacterial conjunctivitis than it affects both eyes.

We all have allergic conjunctivitis if we are allergic to pollen, that's why we are teary eyed and have itching and redness during allergy season. Viral conjunctivitis is not so bad either because it mainly causes watery eyes. Bacterial conjunctivitis is the worst though, because it causes a lot of discharge and affects both eyes. I was lucky that I just had a viral infection and got through it pretty fast.


I haven't tried these eye cold home remedies myself, but I have heard that making eye drops with boiled turmeric and washing the eyes with diluted honey helps a lot with pink eye. I think both turmeric and honey have antibacterial properties, so that must be why it is helpful.

Also, can conjunctivitis affect only one eye or does it happen in both eyes?


I'm not a doctor but I have family members in the health profession. Based on what I have learned from them, using any antibacterial ointment for the eyes is not a good idea. I use neosporin for cuts on my skin and it helps to close the wound faster. What if it closes the eyelid shut when you apply it on the eyes?

I have an antibacterial eye ointment called teramycin that I apply if something gets in my eye. It prevents any scratching of the eye or discomfort until I can get to the doctor. That would be an appropriate ointment to use for eye colds, for example, but not neosporin.


Great article about pink eye, thanks Wisegeek! When my daughter had an eye cold a few years back, my friend told me to take neosporin ointment on a q-tip and put a dab on her inner eye lid. Well, I know it sounds strange, but I did it and the next morning my daughter's eye was better!

I mentioned this to my pediatrician and he could not explain it but said no harm could be done. It really cut down on the time she was out of school and feeling miserable!

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