Can You Be Around Someone with Pink Eye?

Reviewed on 6/17/2022
A man with pink eye rubs his right eye with his hand
If someone has viral or bacterial pink eye, you can be around them if you wash hands frequently, avoid touching your eyes, and avoid sharing personal items.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelids and the whites of the eyes (called the sclera). 

The five main types of conjunctivitis are: 

  • Viral
  • Bacterial
  • Allergic
  • Toxic (also called toxic keratoconjunctivitis)
  • Nonspecific

Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis can be very contagious and easily spread from person to person by:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching an object or surface with germs on it, then touching your eyes before washing hands

Viral conjunctivitis is usually contagious for two weeks after the symptoms first appear, for as long as the eyes are red. A general rule of thumb for viral conjunctivitis is: if the eyes are red, it can spread. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis is considered no longer contagious after 24 hours of antibiotic treatment.

If someone has viral or bacterial pink eye, you can be around them with caution if you follow steps for good hygiene to help reduce your risk of infection, such as:

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
    • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with least 60% alcohol 
  • Wash hands after contact with an infected person or items used by that person
  • Avoid touching your eyes with unwashed hands
  • Do not share items used by an infected person including pillows, towels, washcloths, eye drops, contact lenses, contact lens storage cases, eyeglasses, eye or face makeup, or makeup brushes

What Are Symptoms of Pink Eye?

Symptoms of pink eye (conjunctivitis) include: 

  • Eye irritation
  • Eye redness
  • Burning, sandy, or gritty feeling in one eye
  • Discharge
    • May be watery or thick
    • May be yellow, white, or green, and usually continues to drain throughout the day
    • Affected eye often is crusty and stuck shut in the morning
  • Cold symptoms (viral conjunctivitis)
  • Itchy eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)

See an eye specialist (ophthalmologist or optometrist) if you suspect pink eye and have symptoms that may be signs of a more serious condition: 

  • Difficulty keeping the eye open 
  • Recent trauma to the eye
  • Severe headaches with nausea
  • Eye tenderness
  • Problems seeing clearly
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Use of contact lenses

SLIDESHOW

Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Symptoms, Causes, Treatments See Slideshow

How Do You Get Pink Eye?

Causes of pink eye (conjunctivitis) include: 

  • Viral infections 
    • Most cases of infectious conjunctivitis are caused by viruses
    • Highly contagious
    • Usually caused by a virus that can cause the common cold
    • Spread by contact, usually after an infected person touches their eye and then touches an object 
  • Bacterial infections
    • Highly contagious
    • Occurs more often in children than in adults
    • Spread by contact, usually with objects which have come into contact with an infected person's eye secretions
    • Frequently affects multiple people in a classroom or household
  • Allergies
    • Caused by airborne allergens that come in contact with the eye
  • Toxic 
    • Chronic inflammation of the surface of the eye from an offending agent, usually a preservative or a medication
  • Nonspecific conditions
    • Dry eye
    • Foreign body irritation (e.g., dust, eyelash) 
    • Irrigation after a chemical splash

How Do You Get Rid of Pink Eye?

Treatment for pink eye (conjunctivitis) depends on the cause. 

Viral conjunctivitis treatment: 

  • Topical antihistamine/decongestant eye drop to relieve eye irritation 
  • Warm or cool compresses may be used as needed

Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment: 

  • Most cases go away on their own even if no treatment is used
  • Antibiotic eye drops or ointment
    • Ointment is generally preferred for young children
  • Contact lens wearers should not wear lenses the first 24 hours of treatment, or until the eye is no longer red and contact cases should be discarded and contacts disinfected overnight or replaced (if disposable)

Allergic conjunctivitis treatment:

  • Eye drops that contain naphazoline-pheniramine, ketotifen, olopatadine, and others

Toxic conjunctivitis treatment:

  • Removal of the offending agent
  • Stop use of any topical eye medications 
    • Don’t stop taking any prescribed eye medications without first talking to your doctor, especially glaucoma drops, because an increase in eye pressure may cause irreversible vision loss

Nonspecific conjunctivitis treatment:

  • This type of pink eye usually goes away within a few days without treatment
  • Lubricant drops or ointments may help the eye feel better as it heals
  • Antibiotic or steroid eye drops/ointments are not recommended unless there is an accompanying bacterial infection or inflammation

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Reviewed on 6/17/2022
References
REFERENCES:

Image source: iStock Images

United States. Wolters Kluwer. UptoDate.com. "Patient education: Conjunctivitis (pink eye) (Beyond the Basics)." June 16, 2022. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/conjunctivitis-pink-eye-beyond-the-basicssearch=Pink%20Eye&source=search_result&selectedTitle=2~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=2.

New Zealand. Southern Cross. "Conjunctivitis (pink eye) - symptoms and treatment." June 16, 2022. https://www.southerncross.co.nz/group/medical-library/conjunctivitis-pink-eye-symptoms-treatment-prevention.

United States. Wolters Kluwer. UptoDate.com. "Conjunctivitis." June 16, 2022. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/conjunctivitis?search=Pink%20Eye&source=search_result&selectedTitle=4~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=4#H25.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)." June 16, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/about/.