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Alexa Englehart

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About Author — Alexa currently lives in sunny San Diego, California. When not writing, she enjoys running, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, and reading.

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Is Pink Eye Contagious?

Your eyes are powerful, complex organs, giving you the ability to interpret and process the world around you. At the same time, your eyes are incredibly sensitive and offer an easy access point for bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants, especially if you are prone to rubbing your eyes with your hands – it’s how many people end up with the cold and flu.

One of the most common ailments that specifically affects the eyes is pink eye. According to the National Eye Institute, children and adults report over 3 million cases of pink eye in the United States every year. While it’s not necessarily life threatening, pink eye can be immensely uncomfortable, painful, and contagious. Let’s take a closer look at pink eye, how infectious it is, how long it lasts, and some tips for treatment and prevention.

What is Pink Eye?

Pink eye is an infection of your conjunctiva, which is why it is medically known as conjunctivitis. Your conjunctiva is the thin mucus membrane lining the surface of the white parts of your eyes, known as the sclera, and the insides of your eyelids. While the conjunctiva is transparent, it also contains blood vessels overlaying the sclera. Any form of irritation or inflammation causes those blood vessels to dilate or expand, leading to red, bloodshot eyes.

Just about anyone can get pink eye, but it is most common in school children, preschoolers, and the teachers and daycare workers caring for them. Pink eye has many causes, but most people who talk about pink eye are referring to its contagious form caused by various viruses.

Pink eye is generally easily treatable, but it may be more serious in people who:

  • Wear contact lenses
  • Have vision in just one eye
  • Have any condition impairs the immune system or otherwise reduces the body’s ability to fight off infections

What Causes Pink Eye?

Pink eye has four main causes: viruses, bacteria, allergens, and irritants. Viral pinkeye tends to be the most common form of conjunctivitis, often occurring in the late fall and early spring. It is most often caused by adenovirus, a respiratory virus that most commonly causes sore throats and upper respiratory infections. Other viruses that may lead to pink eye include:

  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Poxvirus
  • Varicella zoster virus
  • Picornavirus

Bacterial infections are the second most common cause of pink eye. These can be triggered by a variety of bacteria entering your eyes, including:

  • Staphylococcus
  • Streptococcus
  • Gonorrhea
  • Bartonellosis (cat-scratch disease)
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (best known for causing pneumonia)

Allergic pink eye is seasonal and generally caused by pollen, dust, animal dander, and other allergen particles. Pink eye can also be triggered by pollutants and chemical irritants, including:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Household cleaners
  • Smog
  • Industrial pollutants
  • Any sort of aerosol spray

Persistent or chronic pink eye may point to more serious underlying issues, most commonly diseases related to rheumatism, including:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Reactive arthritis

Pink eye is also seen in patients with Kawasaki’s disease, a rare disorder that is associated with fevers in infants and children. It is also commonly seen in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

What are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

As you can guess by the name, the main symptom of pink eye is a pink or red swelling in the whites of the eyes and eyelids. Specific symptoms can differ based on the cause of the infection, but general symptoms you can expect regardless of the cause include:

  • Eye discharge
  • Increased tears
  • Burning or itching feeling in the eyes
  • General eye irritation
  • Gritty feeling in the eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Crusty lashes or eyelids

Viral pink eye generally exhibits more of a clear discharge that may look more like tears or watery eyes. You may also have symptoms resembling a viral cold, such as congestion in your sinuses and a runny nose. Your eyelids will appear more swollen and puffy while the insides of your eyelids will appear red. The areas in front of your ears may also feel swollen and tender to the touch.

Bacterial pink eye generally features greater discharge than viral pink eye. This discharge appears gray, green, or yellow in color. This discharge is generally thick and can cause your eyelashes and eyelids to stick together. Pink eye caused by a bacterial infection also tends to come with mild pain. Your upper eye lid may swell, causing it to appear droopy, a condition known as pseudoptosis.

Pink eye caused by allergens is also often coupled with symptoms you would normally expect from seasonal allergies, including coughing, a scratchy throat, sneezing, and a runny or itchy nose.

How Long is Pink Eye Contagious?

Viral and bacterial pink eye are both highly contagious, spreading quickly and easily from you to others. Viral pink eye symptoms generally last five to seven days, but they can last as long as three weeks or, at worst, become ongoing or chronic. Bacterial infections generally last a little longer, about seven to ten days without any medical treatment.

When you have viral or bacterial pink eye, you can be contagious for several days to several weeks once your initial symptoms appear. Schools and daycare centers will usually require kids to stay at home if they have been diagnosed with pink eye. This is a good idea considering the infection so easily spreads in environments with a high concentration of children.

Determining exactly how long pink is contagious and how long you should stay at home is hard to predict and depends largely on the infection itself. In general terms, you should be able to return to work or school if the obvious symptoms of the infection have gone away, which usually comprises three to seven days after the initial symptoms. No obvious symptoms means:

  • The pink or red color in the whites of the eyes should be completely cleared up
  • The eyes should have no form of discharge
  • There should be no crust or matter on your eyelashes or the corners of your eyes

Treatments and Home Remedies for Pink Eye

Medical treatments for pink eye depend on the cause of the infection, but generally, cases of conjunctivitis are mild and should clear up on their own within two weeks. Medicine isn’t usually prescribed for viral conjunctivitis unless the condition is serious. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine for pink eye caused by the herpes virus, which is rare. Your doctor may prescribe eye drops to soothe irritation or comfort. You may also consider pressing a warm or cool compress to the outsides of your eyelids to relieve symptoms.

Pink eye that is caused by bacteria can be treated using antibiotics in the form of topical ointments or eye drops. The antibiotic can completely kill the bacteria, but it takes up to 24 hours for the ointment or eye drops to fight back the infection. After this time, you are no longer contagious.

If you normally wear contacts, you should switch to glasses until the pink eye is resolved. You should also avoid applying any eye makeup or cosmetic creams around the eye area until your symptoms improve.

When to See Your Doctor

Pink eye is a relatively mild disease that your body shouldn’t have problems taking care of on its own. However, some cases may call for you to receive specific treatment or a follow-up. See your doctor or healthcare provider if your pink eye is accompanied by:

  • An immune system weakened by HIV or cancer treatment
  • Moderate to severe pain in one or both eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Symptoms that get worse
  • Bacterial pink eye that does not improve within 24 hours after administration of antibiotics

Tips for Preventing Pink Eye and Its Spread

Much of pink eye’s spread comes down to poor hand washing. Make sure you wash your hands frequently, especially if you have spent time at school or other public spaces. Keep some hand disinfectant around and use it if you do not have access to soap and water.

Other precautionary tips to prevent pink eye:

  • Don’t share tissues, hand towels, washcloths, and other personal items.
  • Absolutely avoid sharing color contact lenses or costume lenses with friends and family.
  • Cover your nose with a tissue or the inside of your arm when you cough and sneeze.
  • Avoid touching or rubbing the area around your eyes.
  • If you wear contacts, talk to your optometrist or ophthalmologist to learn how to properly clean, care for, and replace your lenses. Learn to use contact solution properly or switch to daily disposable contacts.
  • Remove your contact lenses before you take a shower, use a hot tub, or enter any body of water. This can help to prevent trapping bacteria between your lenses and your eyes.
  • When you go for a swim, wear goggles instead of opening your eyes underwater. Goggles can protect your eyes from bacteria, microorganisms, and debris in the water that can cause conjunctivitis and irritation.
  • Regularly clean countertops, faucet handles, bathroom vanities, shared phones, and other flat surfaces that see much shared used with an antiseptic or disinfectant cleaner. The risk of environmental exposure to viral or bacterial conjunctivitis can last for weeks, so keep potentially contaminated areas clean and disinfected. For that same reason, if you have infectious conjunctivitis, you should get rid of any makeup brushes and eye makeup, even if your eyes have cleared up.

Of course, even with the best precautions, you or your kids may end up with pink eye. Along with buckling yourself in for the recovery, do your part to make sure that you don’t spread the infection. If your children have pink eye, keep them home and tell their teachers about the infection. This gives the teacher the opportunity to sanitize and disinfect their classroom or daycare center to minimize the chances of other kids getting the same infection.

Make sure you do see a doctor and get your pink eye diagnosed. It is highly contagious, and even if you think it is caused by allergies or irritants, it is best to know for sure and confirm with a doctor.

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