How Long Is Pink Eye Contagious?
When pink eye is caused by certain bacteria or viruses, the infected person can be contagious for several days to several weeks or more.
Fortunately, people do not appear to be contagious during the incubation period the time between when they are exposed and when pink eye symptoms begin.
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 work to clear up infection in pink eye only if the source is bacterial. In this case, you need up to 24 hours for the eye drops or ointment to start working and for the infected person to no longer be contagious.
If the source of the pink eye is viral, then the infection will need to run its course. In this case, you can relieve symptoms with lubricating eye drops to soothe irritation. Applying warm or cool compresses (whichever feels better) to the outside eyelids, with eyes shut, also can help relieve pink eye symptoms.
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
Again, it's difficult to determine exactly how long pink eye is contagious, unless you know the source of the infection.
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 continually at risk of getting pink eye from exposure to certain adenoviruses found in water sources such as unchlorinated or dirty swimming pools. 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.
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You or your child also can be infected with exposure to bacteria and viruses found in the environment, such as contaminated towels or counter tops. 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.
Adenoviruses. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. January 2005.
[Page updated February 2014]