There are three types of pink eye — viral, bacterial, and allergic. Depending on which one you’ve contracted, it can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. And yes, pink eye can happen to anyone, adults and kids alike.

Pink eye fast facts

How long does pink eye last?

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viral pink eye usually clears up in 7 to 14 days without treatment. But it may linger for 2 or 3 weeks. An antiviral prescription can speed up recovery.
  • Bacterial pink eye may improve within 2 to 5 days without treatment. But it could last up to 2 weeks. With an antibiotic, you can see improvement within 24 hours.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis usually clears up once you remove the triggering source, like pet dander, or tree pollen. Allergy eye drops and antihistamines can help improve symptoms.

What is pink eye?

Pink eye is an infection or inflammation of your conjunctiva, a clear membrane around your eyeball. Inflamed blood vessels in your conjunctiva give your eyes that rosy pink look.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

  • dry, itchy, gritty feeling eyes
  • blurred vision
  • eyes seemingly “glued shut” after sleeping
  • swelling and pus
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FYI: Pink eye caused by viruses or bacteria is contagious as long as you have symptoms.

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Not all “pink eye” is created equal. Here’s a breakdown:

Viral conjunctivitis

  • caused by a virus
  • typically mild, but severity depends on the virus
  • commonly caused by the adenovirus, herpes simplex virus, varicella-zoster virus
  • highly contagious
  • transmitted through contact with fluids of your eye from a person who contracted the infection
  • often accompanied by respiratory or cold symptoms

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis

  • inflammation triggered by allergens, such as pollen, pet dander, mold, and dust mites
  • symptoms typically subside when removed from the triggering allergen
  • not contagious
  • may occur seasonally or year round

Pink eye is highly contagious but can be prevented through good hygiene and sanitation.

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Do not share makeup with other people.
  • If you’ve contracted an eye infection, throw out any makeup you used during the infection.
  • Properly clean and care for contact lenses.

Both viral and bacterial pink eye usually clear up on their own. If staying home until you’re no longer contagious isn’t an option, you may want to seek treatment.

Here are some options to consider.

Prescription antiviral medications

Viral pink eye caused by the herpes simplex or varicella-zoster viruses may respond to prescription antiviral medications. While these meds aren’t a cure, they can shorten the duration of the infection.

Prescription antibiotics

Antibiotic eye drops and ointments can reduce symptoms and contagiousness within 24 hours. These meds can sometimes sting and may require several applications per day. They can also leave your eyes goopy and glossy, but that’s better than crusty and itchy.

Over-the-counter (OTC) and home remedies

Even though pink eye can clear up on its own, it’s uncomfortable AF. Relief is as close as the pharmacy and your own kitchen. You can relieve symptoms with OTC products and home remedies, such as:

If you wake up with your eyes clamped shut, don’t panic. Discharge can dry and harden overnight, sealing eyes shut.

Either hop in the shower or place a warm, wet washcloth on your eyes to moisten and soften the crusties. Within a few minutes, they should wipe away.

Avoid touching your eyes, unless you’re applying treatment. The contact with dirty fingers can make the symptoms worse and increase the transmission of infection to other people.

How do you know if you’re still contagious?

When these visible signs disappear, you are no longer contagious:

  • tearing and watering
  • swelling
  • burning
  • discharge
  • crusties
  • reddish or pinkish eyes

Be patient, symptoms take time to resolve.

How do you know if pink eye will clear up on its own or if you should call a doctor? This depends on the severity of the infection.

If you experience any of the following, give your doctor a call:

  • eye pain
  • blurred vision, even after wiping your eyes
  • sensitivity to light
  • worsening symptoms after 24 hours on antibiotics

Infants and anyone with a weakened immune system should seek professional treatment for pink eye.

So, it’s definitely pink eye and you have a few lingering questions. We’ve got you.

When can I go back to work or school?

You can return to work or school when you’re no longer contagious. However, that timeline depends on the type and severity of your infection, your course of treatment, and how quickly symptoms resolve.

With a bacterial infection, wait at least 24 hours after starting antibiotics or until you no longer show visible symptoms like discharge and bloodshot eyes.

For a viral infection, wait for 2 to 7 days or until visible symptoms go away.

Allergic conjunctivitis doesn’t require time away from work or school because it’s not contagious. Use antihistamine drops to help take away the redness and swelling.

Can I wear contact lenses when I have pink eye?

Dirty contact lenses can actually cause pink eye. When you have pink eye, contacts further irritate your eye.

Throw away any contacts you used as the pink eye developed. Stop wearing contacts until the infection clears completely.

Always clean and store your contact lenses properly, and never share them with another person.

Pink eye can happen to anyone at any time.

This annoying inconvenience is incredibly common. Practicing healthful hygiene and sanitation should keep the crustiness at bay.

Natural remedies or prescription treatment options will have your peepers back to health in no time.

Talk with your doctor and avoid contact with others until symptoms fully disappear. You should be back to health within a week.