Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a common eye infection that causes symptoms such as redness, swelling, and watering in the affected eye. It typically starts in one eye and may spread to the other eye.

Pink eye has more than one possible cause, but viral and bacterial pink eye are the most common causes. Both are highly contagious. You can spread your symptoms to others through close contact.

If you have pink eye, you should take precautions to avoid spreading it to those around you. This may include staying home from work or school when your symptoms are at their worst.

Let’s get into the details about pink eye, how contagious it is, and when it’s safe to go to work or school if you’ve had this condition.

Pink eye infects your conjunctiva. This is the thin, clear membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the whites of your eyeballs.

The infection inflames the tiny blood vessels in the whites of the eyes, turning them red or pink in color.

In addition to redness, pink eye causes the following symptoms in one or both eyes:

  • swollen eyelids
  • increased tear production
  • an itching, burning, or gritty sensation
  • white, yellow, or green discharge
  • crusty eyelashes
  • swollen lymph nodes

These symptoms may occur alongside symptoms of a cold, the flu, or other viruses, including COVID-19.

Pink eye doesn’t usually affect your ability to see. If it does, you should seek medical attention.

Pink eye is transmitted when another person comes into direct or indirect contact with the fluid from a person who is infected with pink eye. It can be transmitted through:

  • coughing and sneezing
  • close physical contact
  • sharing objects that come into contact with your eyes, such as contact lenses, makeup, washcloths, towels, or bedding
  • not washing your hands after coming into contact with an infected person

For example, if you shake hands with someone who has pink eye and then touch your own face or eyes before washing your hands, you could contract pink eye.

Pink eye is about as contagious as the common cold. But you can take steps to prevent it from spreading.

You don’t always need to stay away from school or work, especially if you’re an adult and you’re taking the necessary precautions to prevent it from spreading to others.

However, if you also have cold or flu symptoms, it’s best to stay home until your symptoms have subsided.

In addition, if you work in close contact with others, you should stay home. This is especially important if you work in an area where you and your colleagues are touching the same equipment, like computers, phones, headsets, printers, or other items that you all need to get your job done.

If your child has pink eye, you should contact their school or daycare. Some schools have policies to prevent outbreaks. Younger children especially may be asked to stay home until their symptoms go away.

Lastly, if you’re not sure whether you or your child should stay home, you can always check with your doctor.

After exposure to pink eye, it can take several days before symptoms appear. Symptoms usually peak 3 to 5 days after exposure, and clear up after 7 to 14 days.

You’re contagious when symptoms of pink eye appear and for as long as you’re experiencing watery eyes and discharge.

Pink eye doesn’t always require medical treatment. But, you should still speak to your doctor or healthcare provider if you develop pink eye symptoms.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may not need an appointment. Mild cases may go away on their own within a couple of weeks.

At-home treatment

You can treat pink eye at home by applying a cold compress to the affected eye or eyes to reduce inflammation.

In addition, over-the-counter artificial tears can also help with symptoms. Gently wipe any excess discharge from your eyes with a warm washcloth.

If you regularly wear contact lenses, you’ll need to stop wearing them temporarily. Disposable lenses that you’ve worn should be thrown away. You’ll need to take special care when disinfecting reusable lenses.

Finally, you should get rid of any cosmetics that have come into contact with your eyes recently.

Medical treatment

Some cases of pink eye may require medical care. You should see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

Get medical treatment right away if your newborn has symptoms of conjunctivitis.

Treatment depends on what caused pink eye. Antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointments won’t help when the cause of pink eye is a virus, although they may be prescribed for bacterial pink eye.

If you’re around someone who has pink eye, be sure to keep the following pointers in mind to prevent being exposed to their pink eye infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently. Use soap and water. When you cannot wash your hands, use hand sanitizer. It is especially important to wash your hands after touching someone who has pink eye or touching any of their belongings.
  • Avoid touching your eyes. Try not to rub your eyes. If you have to touch your eyes, wash your hands first.
  • Don’t share personal items. Avoid sharing towels, clothes, bedding, cosmetics, drinking glasses, utensils, or electronic devices with someone who has pink eye.
  • Disinfect surfaces. Use alcohol-based wipes to sanitize objects and surfaces that the person has recently touched. This may include computer keyboards, faucets, light switches, doorknobs, refrigerator handles, and countertops.

If you have pink eye and are considering returning to work or school, the suggestions above also apply to you.

In addition, to reduce the risk of spreading pink eye to others, it’s important to:

  • Wash your eyes. Pink eye can be spread through fluids. Use a clean washcloth to gently wipe fluid from your eyes several times per day. Wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Do not touch eyedrop bottles to your eyes. If you’re using eyedrops, avoid touching the nozzle of the bottle to your infected eye. Do not share your eyedrops.
  • Wash towels and bedding. Disinfect your pillowcases, sheets, towels, and clothes regularly by washing them in hot water with laundry detergent.
  • Do not use public pools. Stay away from public swimming pools.

Pink eye is a contagious eye infection, but you can take steps to prevent transmission, like washing your hands frequently, not touching your eyes, and avoiding close contact with others.

You’re contagious when symptoms of pink eye appear and for as long as you’re experiencing watery eyes and discharge.

You may need to stay home from work or school when your pink eye symptoms are at their worst. This may last several days. Check with your doctor to find out when it’s safe to go back.