Pink eye is a common eye condition that causes painful, red, and itchy eyes. Bacteria, viruses, or allergies can cause pink eye. Viral and bacterial pink eye are both highly contagious. Both adults and children can get pink eye and should stay away from work, school, or daycare until their symptoms clear.

Each type of pink eye takes a different length of time to clear up.

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Pink eye caused by bacteria will take about 24–48 hours before symptoms improve once a person is on antibiotics.

Pink eye caused by a virus takes anywhere from a few days to more than a week to resolve.

Pink eye that results from an allergy will normally clear as the other allergy symptoms lessen.

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Types of pink eye

Allergic, viral, and bacterial are the three main types of pink eye:

1. Allergic pink eye

Grass, dust, and tree pollen may cause allergic pink eye. <br>Image credit: P33tr, 2007
Grass, dust, and tree pollen may cause allergic pink eye.
Image credit: P33tr, 2007

Common allergens that can cause pink eye include:

  • grass
  • animal dander
  • dust
  • mold
  • tree pollen
  • ragweed

Pink eye is not contagious when it is caused by allergies.

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2. Viral pink eye

Viruses responsible for pink eye include:

  • adenovirus — by far the most common
  • herpes virus — uncommon but more dangerous

People can get viral pink eye from an infection that spreads from the nose to the eyes. It can also be transmitted via droplets from a cough or sneeze that land directly on the eye.

Viral pink eye can stem from an upper respiratory infection or cold.

Viral pink eye can last a few days to about 2 weeks, depending on the severity of the infection.

3. Bacterial pink eye

Common causes of bacterial pink eye spreading from one person to another include:

  • sharing personal hygiene or other items
  • using unclean or old makeup that has collected bacteria
  • touching the eye with dirty hands

A bacterial pink eye infection can last about 10 days without treatment. However, bacterial pink eye should resolve in a few days with treatment.

If pink eye does not improve quickly with antibiotic drops, it is likely to be viral rather than bacterial pink eye.

Seven signs a person is contagious

red eye
Swelling around the eye may be a sign that a person is still contagious.

When pink eye symptoms are still present, a person is considered to be contagious.

This is true in all cases except when pink eye is caused by allergies, which is very common.

Seven signs someone is still contagious are:

  • discharge from the eyes
  • crusty eyelashes and lids
  • swelling around the eyes
  • burning sensation
  • tearing up
  • red or pink in the whites of the eyes
  • irritation of the eyes

A daycare, school, or workplace will often request or require a person not to return until their symptoms have cleared.

How to get rid of pink eye

Treatment for pink eye depends on the type and severity of the infection.

Mild cases can clear on their own with no medical intervention within a few days for both viral and bacterial pink eye. Allergic pink eye often clears as allergic reactions are controlled.

While pink eye heals, people may want to use the following:

  • cold or hot compresses to reduce swelling
  • artificial tears to add more moisture and ease symptoms
  • a clean cloth to wipe the eyes
  • eye drops with antihistamine

People should also:

  • clean and disinfect all eyewear
  • throw out any disposable contact lenses
  • throw out old makeup
  • avoid using makeup until the infection clears
  • discontinue contact lens use while infected

People should see a doctor in more severe cases. Medication may include:

  • antibiotic eye drops to clear a bacterial infection
  • antiviral medications to help fight a viral infection, such as herpes

A doctor may recommend some additional treatments to reduce the allergic reactions in cases of allergic pink eye.

Q&A

The following are some of the more frequently asked questions about pink eye:

Will pink eye go away on its own?

Yes, it may do.

It will often take a few days to about 2 weeks for mild infections. People who get pink eye frequently may want to discuss the issue with their doctor to see if there is an underlying reason.

When is it safe to return to work or school?

People should not return to work or school until their symptoms clear completely. A person should talk to their doctor about when it is safe for them to return to normal activities.

A rough guide to when it is safe to return to work or school is:

  • Bacterial pink eye: After 24 hours of antibiotic treatment.
  • Viral pink eye: After 2 days to about a week.
  • Allergic pink eye: No need to stay home.

What should a person do with unused makeup?

Makeup and any products used on or near the eyes should be thrown away if:

  • it was applied during or just prior to an infection
  • it is old and dirty

It is better to buy new makeup than risk using tainted makeup that could spread an infection.

Should contact lenses be thrown out?

People are unlikely to want to wear their contact lenses when they have pink eye.

Disposable lenses worn either right before or during an infection should be thrown out. Hard lenses should be cleaned thoroughly before being used again.

People can also help prevent infections by using only sterile contact solution to store their contacts and cleaning their hands before inserting or removing them.

What should I do if my newborn has pink eye?

Parents should take a newborn baby to be seen by a doctor if the infant develops pink eye. Persistent, watery discharge may be due to a blocked tear duct, but the eye will not usually be red. A blocked tear duct will often clear up on its own.

In other cases in newborns, there may be a more serious infection that requires medical attention.

How can I prevent pink eye?

Close up of a contact lens
Washing hands before inserting or removing contacts is recommended.

Avoiding pink eye can be tricky, as it is highly contagious. People should try to avoid close contact with anyone who has pink eye until their symptoms have cleared.

Everyone can take precautions, such as:

  • not touching or rub eyes
  • washing hands well, especially before inserting or removing contacts
  • not sharing personal items
  • keeping contacts and glasses thoroughly clean
  • washing clothes, towels, and pillowcases regularly
  • staying at home when infected

Takeaway

Though common and sometimes painful, pink eye is not often a major concern. People should avoid others until their symptoms clear, as it is very contagious when caused by an infection.

Most people are safe to go back to work, school, or daycare once symptoms have cleared. Treatment is often only required in severe cases, or when the infection does not clear on its own.