How long is pink eye contagious?
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.
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 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 updated January 2020