Updated on 

June 24, 2022

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How Long Does Pink Eye Last? How Long Are You Contagious?

What is Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)?

Pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, is a common and treatable eye condition caused by inflammation or an infection of the conjunctiva (a transparent membrane that covers the front of the eye). It typically stems from a virus or bacteria. 

Depending on the type of conjunctivitis, pink eye can last anywhere from a few days for mild cases or up to 3 weeks for more severe cases.

Pink eye can be highly contagious with common symptoms, including:

  • Red or pink eyes
  • Itchiness
  • Swollen eyelids 
  • White, yellow, or green discharge coming from your eye
  • Pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Feeling that something is in your eye

Pink eye is divided into three different types: bacterial, viral, and allergic conjunctivitis. While many of their symptoms overlap, there are a few differences. 

3 Types of Conjunctivitis

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis is highly contagious and caused by a bacterial infection, commonly from  Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pneumoniae. Bacterial pink eye is treated with antibiotic eye drops.

While symptoms of bacterial pink eye can differ from person to person, the classic signs and symptoms include:

  • Soreness
  • Pus-like discharge 
  • Eyelids stick together 
  • Burning and itchiness 
  • Blurry vision 
  • Sometimes occurs with an ear infection

People who wear contact lenses with a bacterial eye infection are at risk of developing bacterial keratitis (cornea infection). You should not wear contact lenses while you have conjunctivitis. 

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye caused by a virus commonly linked to an adenovirus (runny nose and common cold). It is highly contagious and often spreads around schools and in crowded places. 

Viral pink eye may occur while you have a cold, flu, or respiratory illness. It typically starts in one eye but may quickly spread to the other eye. 

Common signs and symptoms of viral conjunctivitis include:

  • Burning, red eyes
  • Watery discharge 
  • Itchy eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • A gritty feeling, like something is in the eye
  • Recent history of upper respiratory infection

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by an allergic reaction and is not contagious.

Common allergic conjunctivitis environmental triggers include:

  • Seasonal allergies (pollen, dust, grass)
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Pollution
  • Pool chlorine
  • Car fumes

Allergic conjunctivitis affects both eyes and causes itchy, red, swollen eyes. However, it does not typically cause discharge, which is one way healthcare professionals diagnose the different types of pink eye.

How Long Does Pink Eye Last?

The type and severity of conjunctivitis affects how long it will last. If it is related to another illness such as the common cold, ear infection, or upper respiratory infection, recovery could be longer.

Healthcare professionals estimate recovery time for the different types of pink eye as:

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis typically improves 24 hours after starting antibiotic eye drops. If left untreated, it can take two weeks to go away completely.
  • Viral conjunctivitis is usually mild and will resolve within 7 to 14 days. However, more severe cases could take up to 3 weeks to subside.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis typically resolves after removing the enviornmental trigger.

How Long is Pink Eye Contagious?

While allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious, viral and bacterial pink eye are highly contagious.

It would be best to avoid close contact with other people until symptoms subside or 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis.7  

How Does it Spread?

Viral and bacterial pink eye are easily transmissible and spread similarly to other viral and bacterial infections, including:

  • Close contact (touching or shaking hands)
  • Through the air by coughing and sneezing
  • Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your face and eyes

If you have symptoms of pink eye, you should avoid close contact and sharing items with others. It is also essential to cover your cough and sneeze to stop the spread of pink eye.  

Treatment Options for Pink Eye

Most cases of pink eye will resolve on their own in a couple of days without formal treatment. 

For severe cases of bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic treatment is prescribed by a healthcare professional. Symptoms will improve within 24 hours after eye drop administration.  

You should seek medical attention and treatment if you experience the following:

  • Moderate to severe pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurred vision
  • Large amounts of mucus and discharge
  • Symptoms that don't go away after a couple of days
  • Excessive crustiness around the eyes when you first wake up 

Treating allergic conjunctivitis first includes eliminating and avoiding environmental triggers. Over-the-counter antihistamines, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and artificial tears can help reduce symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis.  

Resting with a cold compress can also relieve symptoms and minimize discomfort for all types of pink eye.

Tips for Preventing Pink Eye

Viral and bacterial forms of pink eye easily spread from person to person. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to prevent the spread of conjunctivitis, including:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently
  • Avoid touching your face and rubbing your eyes
  • Don't share items with someone who has pink eye
  • Throw away makeup used while you were infected
  • Wash sheets, pillowcases, washcloths, and towels in warm water
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses until you are completely healed
  • Don’t use swimming pools with a viral or bacterial infection 
  • Clean eyeglasses while infected with pink eye

Summary

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) results from inflammation of the conjunctiva (a transparent membrane that covers the front of the eye), typically caused by an allergic reaction or a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms include red or pink eyes, irritation, discharge, itchiness, and soreness.

While allergic conjunctiva is not contagious, viral and bacterial pink eye are highly infectious. They spread through close contact with others and air transmission (coughing and sneezing). 

Most cases of pink eye will resolve on their own after a couple of days. Bacterial conjunctivitis may need antibiotic eye drops, with symptoms improving within 24 hours of administration.

10 Cited Research Articles
  1. Pink eye.” National Eye Institute, 3 Aug. 2019 
  2. Treating pink eye (conjunctivitis).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Jan. 2019
  3. Signs and symptoms of pink eye.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Jan. 2019
  4. Conjuntivitis: what is pink eye?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 18 Apr. 2022
  5. Conjunctivitis information for clinicians.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Aug. 2021
  6. Patient education: conjunctivitis (pink eye) (beyond the basics).” UpToDate, 20 Aug. 2020
  7. How pink eye (conjunctivitis) spreads.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 4 Jan. 2019
  8. Treatment for pink eye.” National Eye Institute, 26 June 2019
  9. Conjunctivitis (pink eye).” American Optometric Association, n.d.
  10. Preventing pink eye (conjunctivitis).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Jan. 2019
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
Amy is a registered nurse who holds a M.S. in nursing from California State University, Sacramento, as well as a B.A. in journalism from California State University, Chico. She is a freelance health writer who brings her deep knowledge of the importance of eye health to Vision Center. Her goal is to combine the worlds of nursing and writing to educate people on common eye conditions and how to prevent vision loss.
https://www.visioncenter.org/author/amy/
Author: Amy Isler  | UPDATED June 24, 2022
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Medical reviewer: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
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Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
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The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.

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