How Long Does Pink Eye Last?

Pink eye, often known as conjunctivitis, can be a challenge for both parents and children alike. Learn the symptoms, treatment, and how long it lasts.

child putting eye drops in their eye

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Picture this: it's six in the morning on a school day and you're trying to pack your child's lunch, when they call out that they can't open their eyes. You rush upstairs to see that they have crusting on their lashes, and when you finally clean them off, their eyes are bright pink and itchy. What you're likely seeing is pink eye.

Pink eye is very contagious, and if you don't act quickly, the whole house could potentially come down with it. So what is pink eye, really? How can you treat it? And, most importantly, how long until everyone with pink eye is healthy again? Here's everything you need to know.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye, officially called conjunctivitis by doctors, is an infection and/or inflammation of the conjuntiva, which is the clear tissue that lines the eyelid and covers the white of the eye.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye, officially called conjunctivitis by doctors, is an infection and/or inflammation of the similarly named conjuntiva. The conjunctiva is the clear tissue that lines the eyelid and covers the white of the eye, explains Rosmy Barrios, M.D., medical advisor for the Health Reporter and regenerative medicine specialist,.

Conjunctivitis can be very irritating because it can prevent children from fully opening their eyes. And, unfortunately, pink eye is very contagious. There are also several different kinds of pink eye, including bacterial and viral, along with pink eye from environmental allergens like allergies or chlorine from swimming.

Viral vs. Bacterial Pink Eye: What's the Difference?

No matter the cause, pink eye is a challenge because it can be highly contagious. But there are differences between viral and bacterial pink eye.

"Viruses are more common by far and usually involve one or both eyes being red, with minimal discharge," says Sara Guerrero-Duby, M.D., pediatrician with Dayton Children's Pediatrics. Adenovirus is the most common viral cause of pinkeye, Dr. Barrios adds, but it can be triggered by many others. "Several viruses can cause pink eye, including adenovirus, herpes simplex virus, and varicella-zoster virus," she explains.

Pink eye can also be caused by bacteria, and therefore might sometimes be treated by antibiotics.

So this begs the question: how can parents tell the difference between pink eye caused by a virus, versus a bacterial infection you should treat with antibiotics? Dr. Guerrero-Duby says unfortunately, it can be hard to tell. "It is often difficult to distinguish early on if a pink eye is bacterial or viral, [and] it is not uncommon for children with limited significant symptoms to be started on antibiotic treatment for their eye infections," she explains.

But, if you really want to figure out the difference, it is usually based on later symptoms. The bacterial variety also tends to be more severe. "The hallmark of bacterial conjunctivitis is a sticky discharge, frequently matting the eyes shut. After cleaning, the discharge returns quickly," explains Dr. Guerrero-Duby. Children with bacterial pink eye "often have thick discharge in their eyes, frequently requiring warm compresses to open the eyes."

Either way, it's wise to consult a health care professional if you suspect you or your child has pink eye, and they can help you with an official diagnosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

Pink eye is generally characterized by irritated eyes that are releasing discharge, as the name indicates. Here are some common pink eye symptoms, according to Dr. Barrios and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Redness of the eye
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva
  • Itchiness or irritation
  • Watery discharge (viral pink eye)
  • Thick discharge that causes the eyes to stick together (bacterial pink eye)
  • Sensitivity to light
  • An urge to rub the eyes
  • Blurry vision (occasionally)

Other symptoms of pink eye can be similar to those of a run-of-the-mill cold, like congestion and cough, adds Dr. Guerrero-Duby.

It's important to keep a close watch on symptoms. If the blurry vision worsens or sticks around longer than the infection's course, you should visit a health care professional or ophthalmologist for further examination.

How Is Pink Eye Treated?

Parents want to get their children back to feeling like themselves as quickly as possible. A pink eye infection needs mainly supportive care, explains Dr. Guerrero-Duby, which means treatment of symptoms rather than the cause. This includes "gently cleaning the eyes with moist cotton balls or clean cloths with simple observation," she explains.

Children with bacterial infections may need antibiotic eyedrops or ointment, Dr. Barrios adds, and for any discomfort, artificial tears and cool compresses may be used.

The good news is that most pink eye cases resolve on their own, without too much intervention. However, as with any infection, staying in touch with a physician is important in case symptoms worsen. If you or your child are not responding to supportive care within a week, it's best to reach out in case the infection is bacterial and needs further medication.

How to Know If Pink Eye Is Still Contagious

How many times a day can parents wash their hands? Especially during pink eye, the limit doesn't exist, because the condition is so contagious. So when can parents stop worrying that they will get it, too?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is fluid. "Viral pink eye is considered contagious when the child has visibly pink eyes. They are frequently contagious 24 hours before their symptoms develop. Like most viruses, the symptoms can continue for 5 to 7 days," says Dr. Guerrero-Duby.

But if the infection is bacterial, the answer changes. "Bacterial pink eye is contagious when children have acute symptoms but are considered able to return to their activities after 24 hours of initiating a prescribed antibiotic for the eyes," she continues.

While kids are still sick with pink eye, it's best they stay home from school, and, if you have it too, it's best practice to stay home from work. Pink eye can spread quickly through touch. "It is generally recommended to avoid close contact with others until these symptoms have resolved," Dr. Barrios confirms.

When Can Kids Return to School After Pink Eye?

After five days inside with a child whose eyes are weepy and red, many parents are excited to send them back to school, especially if they're starting to feel better. So when can parents know it's OK to send their kids back, without the risk of infecting others?

As most things with pink eye, it can be hard to say. It's a judgment call.

"When to return to activities is always a difficult question. If your child needs your care, they probably need to stay home. Parents need to know the return policy of their school or daycare provider. Children with viral pink eye frequently feel OK," says Dr. Guerrero-Duby.

It's important to speak to school providers and administrators to see what the policy is. Many schools allow children who feel better to return, while others prefer for children to be completely symptom-free.

In the end, pink eye is usually only a brief annoyance. It's easily treated and usually not serious. For further information, Dr. Guerrero-Duby suggests taking a look at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) pink eye guidelines if anything seems out of the ordinary.

"This is just another common challenge of parenting," Dr. Guerro-Duby says, summing up pink eye—and all common illnesses—in a single sentence.

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  1. Hoffman J. Adenovirus: ocular manifestationsCommunity Eye Health. 2020;33(108):73-75.

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