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How long is pink eye contagious?
Dr. Burt Dubow clarifies how long pink eye is contagious and when it is safe to send your child back to school or day care.
Home Conditions Eye Conditions, A-Z
How long is pink eye contagious?
Reviewed by Burt Dubow, OD
If you have pink eye caused by a virus or bacteria, your conjunctivitis can be contagious for several days to several weeks once symptoms (red, itchy, watery eyes; possibly with eye discharge) appear.
Schools and day care centers often require a child diagnosed with pink eye to stay home until the condition is resolved. This is a good idea, because infectious conjunctivitis (pink eye) can be highly contagious in environments where children are in close contact with each other.
But determining how long pink eye is contagious and how long you or your child should stay home can be a little tricky. Generally speaking, it should be safe for you to return to work or for your child to return to school or to a day care center if the obvious symptoms of pink eye no longer are present — usually in three to seven days.
This means that eyes should be clear of yellowish discharge and matter on the eyelashes as well as the corners of the eyes. Also, the pink color in the white of the eye should be cleared up.
Contagious pink eye treatments
Topical antibiotic ointments or eye drops are effective treatments for conjunctivitis only if the pink eye is caused by bacteria. In this case, you need up to 24 hours for the eye drops or ointment to start working and for the pink eye to no longer be contagious.
If conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, the infection simply must run its course. Though there is no treatment for viral pink eye, you can relieve symptoms with lubricating eye drops to soothe irritation.
If pink eye is caused by eye allergies, then the condition is not contagious. But you should find and consult with an eye doctor near you to make sure you know which type of pink eye you or your child has.
If eyes are pink from an allergic reaction, eye drops containing antihistamines may be able to relieve symptoms. Cold compresses also can help.
Exposure to contagious pink eye
It's difficult to determine exactly how long pink eye is contagious if you don't know its cause.
For example, the rubeola virus causing measles and accompanying pink eye symptoms is extremely contagious, often for as long as two weeks or more.
You also can be at risk of getting contagious pink eye from exposure to certain adenoviruses found in water sources such as untreated swimming pool water. This is a good reason to wear swim goggles or a swim mask with a seal that prevents your eyes from being exposed to the water.
You or your child also can be infected with exposure to bacteria and viruses found in the environment, such as contaminated towels or countertops.
The risk of environmental exposure can last for weeks unless contaminated items are cleaned and disinfected. This is why it's a good idea to discard items such as mascara brushes and other eye makeup if you've had infectious conjunctivitis, even if your eyes have cleared up.
If you are being treated but don't notice any improvement in your pink eye symptoms after about 10 days, be sure to notify your eye doctor.
Page published in January 2019
Page updated in January 2022
Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis) (for Teens)
Conjunctivitis, commonly called pinkeye, is an inflammation of the tissue covering the eye and inner surface of the eyelid.
Reviewed by: Rachel S. Schare, MD
Print en español Conjuntivitis
What Is Pinkeye?
You might know the eye infection conjunctivitis (pronounced: kun-junk-tih-VY-tus) as pinkeye. It's common in young kids because it's usually contagious and tends to sweep through preschools and playgrounds. But even teens and adults can get pinkeye.
The good news is that pinkeye is a minor infection and although it might look bad, it's not usually serious.
What Causes Pinkeye?
Pinkeye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the white part of the eye and the inner eyelids. The condition can be either infectious (it can spread to other people) or noninfectious.
When people talk about pinkeye, they usually mean the infectious kind. It's often caused by the same bacteria and viruses responsible for colds and other infections, including ear infections, sinus infections, and sore throats.
It's also possible for the same types of bacteria that cause the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) chlamydia and gonorrhea to cause conjunctivitis. If someone touches an infected person's genitals and then rubs his or her own eye or touches a contact lens, the infection can spread to the eye.
Some kinds of pinkeye are noninfectious, such as:
allergic conjunctivitis, caused by an allergic reaction
irritant conjunctivitis, caused by anything that irritates the eyes, such as air pollution or chlorine in pools
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Pinkeye?
The very pink or red coloring that gives the infection its nickname is a telltale sign of pinkeye. It's also usual to have discomfort in the eye, which may feel itchy or gritty. Often, there's some discharge from the eye, and pain and swelling of the conjunctiva. Pinkeye can affect one or both eyes.
It can be hard to tell whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria. In general, the discharge associated with viral conjunctivitis is watery, whereas it will be thicker and more pus-like when the infection is caused by bacteria. When you wake up in the morning, your eyelids may be stuck together (don't be alarmed, though — cleaning your eyes with a warm washcloth will loosen the dried crusts).
Itchiness and tearing are common with allergic conjunctivitis.
Is Pinkeye Contagious?
Yes, if it's caused by bacteria or a virus. Pinkeye that's caused by bacteria can spread to others as soon as symptoms appear and for as long as there's discharge from the eye — or until 24 hours after antibiotics are started. Conjunctivitis that's caused by a virus is generally contagious before symptoms appear and can remain so as long as the symptoms last.
Allergic conjunctivitis and irritant conjunctivitis are not contagious.
How Is Pinkeye Treated?
Because it can be hard to tell which kind of conjunctivitis a person has, it's wise to visit a doctor if your eyes are red and irritated.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is usually treated with prescription antibiotic drops or ointment. Drops — the form of treatment most commonly prescribed for teens — are used up to four times a day. They don't hurt, although they may cause a brief stinging sensation. Even though your eyes should feel and look better after a couple of days, it's important to use the drops for as long as the doctor has prescribed. The infection may come back if you stop too soon.
If a virus is causing conjunctivitis, antibiotic drops will not help. The eye infection will get better on its own as the body fights off the virus.
If you have allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe anti-allergy eyedrops or medicine in pill form.
Can Pinkeye Be Prevented?
Because infectious conjunctivitis is highly contagious, wash your hands after interacting with anyone who has the infection. Don't share potentially infected items like washcloths, towels, gauze, or cotton balls. This can be difficult among family members, so just do the best you can.
If you have pinkeye, it's important to wash your hands often, especially after touching your eyes. The infection can easily spread from one eye to the other on contaminated hands or tissues.
It's also wise not to share cosmetics, especially eye makeup. Bacteria can hang out on beauty products, so avoid using the testers at makeup counters directly on your eyes. And if you've already had a bout of pinkeye, throw away all your eye makeup and splurge on new stuff (but don't start using your new products until the infection is completely gone).
If you wear contact lenses and you have pinkeye, your doctor or eye doctor may recommend that you not wear contact lenses while infected. After the infection is gone, clean your lenses carefully. Be sure to disinfect the lenses and case at least twice before wearing them again. If you wear disposable contact lenses, throw away your current pair and use a new pair.
If you know that you're prone to allergic conjunctivitis, limit allergy triggers in the home by keeping windows and doors closed on days when pollen is heavy and by not letting dust accumulate. Irritant conjunctivitis can only be prevented by avoiding the irritating causes.
How Can I Feel Better?
How Long Is Pink Eye Contagious?
How long is pink eye contagious? Pink eye, in kids and adults, is troublesome but rarely cause for serious medical concern.
UPMC HealthBeat en español
EYE HEALTH How Long Is Pink Eye Contagious?
2 Minute Read
Medically Reviewed by Urgent Care
September 13, 2018
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Updated January 6, 2021
Do you have red, watery eyes that just won’t stop itching? If so, you could have pink eye.
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. Symptoms can include watery, itchy eyes, sticky eye discharge that can cause the eyelids to stick together, and light sensitivity.
There are three kinds of pink eye, and not all types are contagious.
Bacterial Pink Eye
Bacterial pink eye is often caused by exposure to the same bacteria that causes a staph infection or strep throat, according to the National Eye Institute.
Bacterial pink eye is highly contagious and is typically treated with antibiotic eye drops. It can spread to others as soon as symptoms appear, and it remains contagious for as long as symptoms remain, or for about 24 hours after starting a course of antibiotics.
Symptoms of bacterial pink eye include:
Puss and mucus discharge
Pinkness or redness in the whites of the eyes
Prevention of Bacterial Pink Eye
Because it is spread by hand-to-eye contact or eye contact with an infected object, it is important to practice good hygiene by washing hands regularly and wearing goggles when swimming.
If your condition worsens, consider visiting a UPMC Urgent Care location . If you’re unable to visit one of our locations, consider making a UPMC AnywhereCare online appointment.
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Viral Pink Eye
The most common type of pink eye is viral pink eye. Antibiotics don’t work on this, so it usually just must run its course. Viral pink eye is sometimes accompanied by other symptoms, such as a cold or respiratory infection, and it is also highly contagious.
Signs and symptoms of viral pink eye can include:
Watery discharge from the eye
One infected eye, and the other eye also eventually becomes infected as well
Other illness, such as cold, flu, or other respiratory infection
Viral Pink Eye Prevention
Similar to bacterial pink eye, viral pink eye can be spread through hand-to-eye contact or by touching objects that that are contaminated with the virus. To avoid spreading this virus, avoid touching your eyes, but if you do, wash your hands immediately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), proper handwashing means getting your hands wet first, then lathering with soap. Make sure to scrub your palms, and, if possible, stay home from work or school.
Viral pink eye can take several days to several weeks to clear up, and it can be transmittable to others the entire time.
Allergic and Chemical Pink Eye
Pink eye can also be caused by allergies, wind, sun, smoke, or chemicals (chemical pink eye). For example, someone may experience eye irritation after exposure to animal dander or swimming in a chlorinated pool. These types of pink eye are not contagious.
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Pink Eye Risk Factors
Risk factors for pink eye can include:
Wearing hard or rigid contact lenses, sharing lenses, or not changing your lenses frequently
Touching your eye with unclean hands
Using contaminated eye makeup
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Treating Pink Eye
Treating pink eye mostly involves making your eyes feel better and making sure you don’t spread the disease. One short-term remedy involves gently cleaning around your eyes with a smooth wet cloth or cotton ball to sooth your eye. Or, lie down with a cold, wet cloth gently draped across your closed eyes.
Avoid wearing eye makeup or contact lenses until your pink eye is gone in order to keep the makeup tools and lenses sterile. Also, do not share pillowcases, towels, or washcloths with others. If your pink eye doesn’t go away or start to feel better after a week, be sure to see your doctor.
Call your doctor if you experience pink eye symptoms. If your condition worsens, consider visiting a UPMC Urgent Care location. If you’re unable to visit one of our locations, consider making a UPMC AnywhereCare online appointment.
About Urgent Care
Sometimes you need care right away, with no time to wait for an appointment. That’s where UPMC Urgent Care comes in. We offer prompt treatment for illnesses and injuries 12 hours a day, seven days a week. With several western Pennsylvania locations, plus more throughout the state, you can find immediate care close to you. Our services include treatment for minor injuries and illnesses, physicals, prescription filling, and flu shots and immunizations. Wait times are usually shorter than the emergency room for minor injuries and illnesses, and we accept most major insurance.