When we think of common childhood ailments, pink eye ranks up there with winter colds and summer abrasions. I think back on the time I had pink eye, when I was 7 years old, and how my itchy eyes would stick together every morning. The thing I remember most is the drops my mum would put in my eyes. Let’s just say I was not a fan of the drops, and I am pretty sure my mum wasn’t a fan of the process of putting them in my eyes.
Just like the common cold, we can reach out to our herbal allies to help soothe the discomfort of pink eye and ease symptoms faster. Many of the herbal preparations we rely on for pink eye are easy to use and can be made with items you will already have at home.
What Is Pink Eye Anyway?
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is an infection of the membrane that lines the eyelids and covers the white part of the eyeball, causing the blood vessels in the eye to become inflamed so that they are visible, giving the eye a pink appearance (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).
Symptoms of pink eye include:
- Redness in one or both eyes
- Swelling in one or both eyes
- Watering or tearing
- A feeling of grittiness in one or both eyes
- Discharge from the eye(s) that may form a crust overnight
According to a study published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, pink eye is most commonly caused by a viral infection, although it can be caused by bacteria, allergic reaction, or blocked tear ducts in babies as well. Since the majority of cases are viral- or allergy-related, they will not respond to antibiotics (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2017). While these cases generally clear up on their own in one to two weeks, we can use herbs to ease the discomfort of pink eye in the meantime.
How To Approach Pink Eye Naturally
Lifestyle Approaches for Pink Eye
Pink eye, whether viral or bacterial, is extremely contagious. The best way to prevent it from spreading, either to another person or from one infected eye to the other, is to keep the hands washed and don’t touch the eyes at all. When cleansing an infected eye, use a clean cloth each time for a compress, and do not re-soak a cloth in your infusion as this will transfer bacteria or virus to your infusion.
Some additional ways to prevent the spread of pink eye to other members of your home are:
- Don’t share towels or face clothes
- Don’t share makeup or makeup tools
- Wash hands frequently
- Wash pillow cases frequently
4 Herbs for Pink Eye
When it comes to choosing herbs for pink eye, we will want to look for herbs that are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and demulcent. These herbs will help to calm the itch, slow weeping and crustiness, and soothe redness experienced with pink eye.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) Flower
Chamomile has small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centers. Delicate feathery leaves are alternate on the stem. It is the just-opened flowers used in herbal medicine. The most commonly used chamomile is Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) or German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). Both can be used for pink eye.
Chamomile flowers have soothing qualities that may help calm the itch and irritation in the eyes caused by pink eye. Chamomile is also antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory which can help to bring some relief to the eye.
Chamomile makes a fantastic eye wash or compress that can be used with pink eye. You will find directions below about using a compress.
Chamomile is a member of the Asteraceae family, and while some people are sensitive to plants in this family, allergic reactions are rare (Hoffmann, 2003). However, caution is advised.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) Aerial Parts
We recognize goldenrod from its bright yellow flowers which bloom in late summer and well into the autumn months. While it is also a member of the Asteraceae family, its pollen is actually too heavy to be carried on the wind, thus it is ragweed that causes us allergy grief, not goldenrod. For medicinal purposes, we use the flowering tops of the plant. Harvest the top one-third of the plant just as the flowers begin to open.
Goldenrod is a classic herb used in cases of congestion and mucus build up, but it also has antimicrobial action that can be of assistance in cases of pink eye. It can also be used to help calm red and painful eyes that are the hallmark of pink eye as well (Wood, 2008).
Goldenrod has a mild flavor that makes a delicious tea that can be drunk to help relieve the symptoms of pink eye. It can also be taken in tincture form with a suggested dosage of 2-4 mL three times a day.
Plantain (Plantago spp.) Leaf
Plantain is usually thought of as a garden weed. It can be found growing just about everywhere that dandelions grow, and it is easily identified by its parallel ribbed veins that run along with the leaves. The leaves grow low to the ground in a rosette pattern and flowers emerge from the center of the plant in a tall spike that resembles a green mini corn cob.
Plantain a beneficial herb for pink eye as it’s cooling, moistening, and softening to red and inflamed tissues. (Wood, 2008). These qualities make for an excellent addition to an eye wash with chamomile.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) Root
Goldenseal gets its name from its yellow colored rhizome. It has a slender purplish stalk that stands with two palmately divided leaves on each stem, resembling maple leaves. Its flower is white and each stalk will develop a single red berry. As the root is the part most often used, this plant is at risk of over-harvesting. To help ensure the wild populations of this plant make sure you source from cultivated stock rather than wild harvested. You can learn more about at-risk plants in our post, 12 At-Risk Plants NOT To Harvest This Year.
Goldenseal works on the mucous membranes as it helps to tone leaky and swollen tissues. Herbalist Matthew Wood credits goldenseal’s berberine content in helping to restore balance to bacteria levels, thus reducing infection (Wood, 2008).
The suggested dosage for goldenseal is to take 2-4 mL of goldenseal tincture 3 times daily until symptoms resolve.
Pink Eye Herbal Eyewash and Compress
An herbal eyewash and/or compress are two of the best herbal preparations for pink eye. Not only does the warm liquid help to remove crusty build up, but these preparations also bring the supportive plant constituents into direct contact with the tissues that need them most.
Pink Eye Herbal Eyewash and Compress
1 tbsp of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) flowers (or another herb of choice)
8 oz just-boiled water
¼ tsp sea salt (optional)
- Pour boiled water over one tablespoon of the loose herb. Cover and steep for 10-15 minutes.
- Strain liquid through an unbleached coffee filter.
- Add ¼ teaspoon of sea salt to your infusion if using, which will make the solution more comfortable for your eye(s).
- To use as an herbal eyewash, allow the liquid to cool to a comfortable temperature. Test a small amount of liquid on the inside of your wrist first. When the temperature reaches a comfortable level, pour the liquid over the eye, opening the eye at least a little to let the infusion wash into the eyes. Repeat as needed.
- To use as an herbal compress, soak a cloth in the liquid, and apply the wet cloth over the closed eye(s), making sure the cloth is cool enough to feel comfortable on the eyes before applying. Allow this to rest on the eyes for 5 minutes before removing.
- Repeat with a fresh cloth 3-4 times a day.
- The extra infusion can be refrigerated and reheated as needed for 24 hours before making a new batch.
Since pink eye is a common childhood infection and is most often caused by a virus, herbs can not only provide wellness support but can ease symptoms as well.
As you can see, there are several useful herbs we can rely on to soothe some of the symptoms and discomforts associated with pink eye. While having pink eye can be uncomfortable, we can reach to herbs to help manage the symptoms and reduce the duration of the discomfort.
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
American Academy of Ophthalmology. (2017). Is your doctor prescribing the wrong treatment for pink eye? Retrieved from https://www.aao.org/newsroom/news-releases/detail/is-doctor-prescribing-wrong-pink-eye-treatment
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Pink eye (conjunctivitis). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pink-eye/symptoms-causes/syc-20376355
Wood, M. (2008). The earthwise herbal: A complete guide to Old World medicinal plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.