What is pinkeye?
Pinkeye, also termed conjunctivitis, is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eyeball. Pinkeye is a common problem in both children and adults. When pinkeye develops, the blood vessels become more visible and give a pinkish tinge to the eyelids and the whites of the eyes. The inflammation of pinkeye may be caused by four main sources: bacteria, viruses, allergens, and chemical irritants.
Is pinkeye contagious? What is the incubation period for pinkeye?
The answer to the question about pinkeye contagiousness depends upon the source or cause of the conjunctival irritation. For example, bacterial and viral causes of pinkeye are almost always contagious and are spread from person to person. However, pinkeye caused by allergens and chemical irritants is not contagious by person-to-person contact. Pinkeye that is contagious has an incubation period as long as 14 days. However, most doctors do not think that pinkeye becomes contagious to other people until symptoms start to develop. Some bacterial and viral strains are capable of being transferred from humans to pets (for example, dogs and cats) and also from infected pets to humans.
How will I know when I have pinkeye?
Unfortunately, the symptoms and signs of both contagious and noncontagious pinkeye often are so similar it is difficult to tell them apart. The symptoms and signs of both contagious and noncontagious pinkeye may include the following:
Diagnosis by a physician is usually done by physical examination and patient history; seldom are tests run because the only effective treatment is removal of noninfectious irritants and relatively short-term antibiotic therapy if bacterial pinkeye is suspected. In rare severe infections, physicians may utilize conjunctival scrapings and cultures to identify the infecting organism.
If you are unsure if you or others have contagious pinkeye, act as if it is contagious until you know the cause.
Prevent the Spread of Pinkeye
Infectious forms of pinkeye are highly contagious and are spread by direct contact with infected people. If someone has infectious pinkeye, avoid touching the eye area and wash the hands frequently, particularly after applying medications to the eye area. Never share towels or handkerchiefs, and throw away tissues after each use. Disinfecting surfaces like countertops, sinks, and doorknobs can also help prevent the spread of infectious pinkeye.
How do people transmit pinkeye?
Noncontagious causes (allergens and/or chemical irritants) of pinkeye do not spread to other individuals. Unfortunately, some chemical irritants and allergens can be spread through the air, but contagious causes of pinkeye are usually not spread through the air. However, contagious causes such as bacterial and viral infections spread easily from person to person by touching an individual infected with pinkeye and then touching your own eyes or eyelids. Individuals who share items like makeup or eye shadow can transfer pinkeye from these surfaces to other individuals. Pinkeye in newborns can also be caused by sexually transmitted infections and can be very serious for the newborns. Contagious pinkeye often spreads to both eyes in the infected individual.
How long does pinkeye last? What is the contagious period for pinkeye?
The cure for pinkeye depends on the cause; noncontagious causes can be rapidly cured (about 12-24 hours) if the cause is removed from the patient (for example, an allergen or irritating chemical is washed out by tears). If the irritant is not removed, noncontagious pinkeye may last for months. Bacterial causes may linger and require antibiotic drops placed in the eye; in about 24-48 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment, patients become noncontagious, but the symptoms and signs can still last up to a month. Unfortunately, viral pinkeye is only treated symptomatically, and it may take a few days to two weeks before symptoms and signs start to resolve. When symptoms and signs resolve, then you are cured of viral pinkeye. However, it is possible for people to get both repeated infections and/or repeated incidents of allergic or chemical irritation, so all causes of pinkeye can recur.
When should I contact a health-care provider about pinkeye?
Although most cases of pinkeye are mild and get better on their own, in some circumstances, one may need to contact a health-care provider. If you have pinkeye and have one or more of the following problems, you should contact your health-care provider immediately:
- Symptoms worsen or do not improve, especially if you are undergoing treatment (for example, utilizing antibiotics).
- Eye pain increases to moderate or severe levels
- Pinkeye becomes more red in color
- Moderate to severe light sensitivity and/or blurry or impaired vision
- If you have a preexisting eye condition
- If you have an immune system that is weakened (for example, due to HIV, chemotherapy or cancer)
- If you're pregnant and suspect you may have a sexually transmitted infection, you should contact your OB/GYN physician urgently to be sure your newborn is not infected.
Medically Reviewed on 10/17/2017
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Pink Eye: Usually Mild and Easy to Treat." May 5, 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/features/conjunctivitis/>.