Most patients who develop the itchy, watery eyes of pinkeye are given the wrong treatment, according to new research, which finds that antibiotic drops are rarely effective.

U.S. researchers who looked at nearly 300,000 patients diagnosed with pinkeye -- or acute conjunctivitis -- found that the vast majority were handed a prescription for antibiotic eye drops or an antibiotic-steroid combination.

But the researchers say such drops typically do nothing to clear up the problem, since most cases of pinkeye are caused by a virus, not bacteria, so antibiotics are ineffective.

In fact, antibiotic-steroid drops might even worsen the patient’s condition.

“Antibiotic-steroid drops are inappropriate for most patients with acute conjunctivitis because it may prolong or exacerbate certain types of viral infection,” the American Academy of Ophthalmology said in a statement.

There are three types of pinkeye: viral, bacterial, and allergic conjunctivitis. Antibiotics will only clear up a bacterial infection.

For the study, which appears in the journal Ophthalmology, researchers from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center looked at data from patients who filled prescriptions for eye drops for pinkeye.

They found that most people in the study - about 83 per cent - did not go to an eye care specialist for help with their pinkeye, but instead visited their family doctor, walk-in clinic, or urgent care provider.

Patients who saw family doctors or other non-eye specialists were two to three times more likely to fill their antibiotic eye drop prescriptions, compared to those seen by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.

The researchers also found that of the 300,000 diagnosed with pinkeye, 58 per cent went on to fill a prescription for antibiotic eye drops.

Those who filled such prescriptions were significantly more likely to be white, younger, better-educated, and more affluent than patients who did not fill them.

Dr. Nakul S. Shekhawat, the lead author of the study, says the research “opens the lid” on the overprescribing of antibiotics for pinkeye.

"It shows that current treatment decisions for pinkeye are not based on evidence, but are often driven more by the type of health care practitioner making the diagnosis and the patient's socioeconomic status than by medical reasons."

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says most cases of pinkeye can resolve on their own without treatment within seven to 14 days.

It recommends using a cool, wet washcloth on the affected eyes to make them feel more comfortable. It also advises washing hands often and avoiding touching the eye.