Is Pink Eye Contagious?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
November 1, 2021

If you’re experiencing eye redness, discomfort, or discharge from your eye, you may have a condition called pink eye.

Also called conjunctivitis, pink eye is an inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, a thin membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the white part of the eye.

Most commonly, it’s caused by viral infection which results in inflammation of the conjunctiva.

When this part of the eye is inflamed, the blood vessels become more visible and pronounced, which can cause the whites of the to appear red or pink.

Pink eye can also be caused by bacteria, allergies, or environmental irritants.

While pink eye can cause pain and irritation, it is unlikely to result in serious problems, like loss of vision.

But because certain types of pink eye are contagious, it’s important to seek medical care from a doctor who can diagnose and treat the problem.

Viral forms of pink eye may resolve on their own, but if your doctor suspects that you have bacterial conjunctivitis, you may be prescribed antibiotic eye drops to treat the infection.

In this article, I’ll cover what pink eye is, whether it’s contagious, how long it lasts, and how you can risk spreading it to others.

I’ll also outline some risk factors for pink eye, and talk about when you should see a doctor about your conjunctivitis.

What is Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)?

Pink eye is an infection or inflammation in the conjunctiva, the membrane that lines the eyelids and the white part of your eyeball.

When a virus, bacteria, or other irritant enters the eye, the conjunctiva becomes inflamed, resulting in the following signs and symptoms:

  • Tearing
  • Redness or pinkness in the white part of the eye
  • Itchy eyes
  • A gritty feeling in one or both eyes
  • Discharge from one or both eyes
  • Crust on or around your eye that may prevent it from opening in the morning

While pink eye is most commonly the result of a viral infection, it can sometimes be caused by a bacterial infection.

Depending on which type of conjunctivitis you have, your doctor may recommend a different treatment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of viral conjunctivitis are typically mild and unlikely to result in any major medical problems.

They usually clear up within 7-14 days without treatment.

Bacterial pink eye can improve without treatment, but if your symptoms are worsening, your health care provider may recommend antibiotic eye drops or ointment to improve your symptoms and reduce the chance of transmission to others.

It’s difficult to know for sure if a case of pink eye is caused by bacteria, but thick discharge and crusting is a common sign of bacterial infection.

Allergic cases of pink eye are caused by exposure to allergens.

These cases are not contagious, and usually resolve by avoiding the allergens or taking an allergy medication.

How Long Does Pink Eye Last?

How long pink eye lasts ultimately depends on what’s causing it.

Viral conjunctivitis often resolves on its own within a week or two; however, some more severe cases of viral pink eye can take up to 3 weeks to totally clear up.

Bacterial pink eye can also get better on its own without treatment within 2-5 days, but it may take up to two weeks to totally resolve.

If you take antibiotics for a case of bacterial conjunctivitis, they should start working within a few days. 

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How to Prevent Transmission of Pink Eye

While pink eye does not typically result in severe infection, it is very transmissible.

Viral or bacterial pink eye spreads from one infected person to another when it comes into contact with the other person’s eye.

This can occur if you shake an infected person’s hand, and then rub your eyes.

Or you could get the infection by touching a surface an infected person touched, then touching your own eyes.

Conjunctivitis-causing viruses and bacteria can also spread through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. 

To prevent transmission of pink eye, practice good hygiene.

Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before you touch your eyes.

Don’t share towels or washcloths with other people, and avoid letting others use your eye makeup or personal eye care products. 

If you have pink eye in one eye, avoid touching your other eye to prevent the spread of the infection.

You may also want to use a new towel and washcloth daily, and swap out your pillow case regularly. 

Risk Factors for Pink Eye

A few factors can increase a person’s likelihood of developing pink eye:

  • Exposure: Being exposed to someone who has a viral or bacterial form of pink eye is the most significant risk factor.
  • Coming in contact with allergens: Allergic pink eye occurs when you have an allergic reaction to an irritant, which results in inflammation of the conjunctiva.
  • Wearing contact lenses: People who wear contacts, especially extended-wear contact lenses, may be at a higher risk for developing conjunctivitis. 

When to See a Doctor

If you have symptoms of pink eye and you think you may have a bacterial infection, make an appointment with your healthcare provider, who can diagnose and treat you. While most cases of pink eye don’t result in medical complications, in some people, the inflammation can temporarily affect vision.

If you have severe pain, light sensitivity, or blurry vision along with a case of pink eye, see your doctor or chat with a K doctor as soon as you can to determine the next steps in treatment, which may involve an eye exam, antibiotics, or other treatment.

How K Health Can Help

If you’re not sure what’s causing your eyes to be red or feel irritated, talk to a doctor.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you go to school with pink eye?
Some schools allow students with pink eye to attend as long as they don’t have a fever or other flu-like symptoms. But to prevent the spread of pink eye, it’s best to stay home from school or work until your symptoms resolve, especially if you’ll have close contact with others.
Can you get pink eye from kissing?
If you’re kissing someone and your eyes touch, you could spread pink eye to another person (or vice versa). Conjunctivitis is a highly transmissible condition, and any type of close contact can spread it.
Will pink eye go away on its own?
Some cases of bacterial, viral, and allergic conjunctivitis resolve on their own within a few days or weeks. If your symptoms are bothering you or getting worse, see a health care provider, who can properly diagnose and treat the condition.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.