Pink eye or conjunctivitis causes painful, red, and itchy eyes. The time it takes to clear up depends on the type of
pink eye. It often resolves in 7-10 days, but some people may need treatment.

Treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis is with antibiotics. Most people will need antibiotic treatment for 5–7 days. A doctor will advise on when to return to work or school, but people should not attend if they have symptoms and will be working closely with others.

Viral pink eye is usually highly contagious for 10–14 days. In some cases, it can take three weeks or more to heal.

Pink eye that results from an allergy is not contagious and will typically clear after a person moves away from the allergen.

Allergic, viral, and bacterial are three types of pink eye. The type of pink eye a person has will affect how long it takes to heal.

1. Allergic pink eye

Close up of allergic pink eyeShare on Pinterest
Image credit: P33tr, 2007

Around 40% of the population may be prone to allergic conjunctivitis, when the eye reacts to allergens, such as:

Exposure to chemicals such as chlorine can also lead to symptoms.

Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

It will resolve more quickly if a person can move away from the allergens that cause the reaction. Some people may need eye drops or other medication to keep allergic conjunctivitis at bay.

2. Viral pink eye

Viruses responsible for pink eye include:

  • Adenovirus: This accounts for up to 90% of cases.
  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV): HSV is likely responsible for 1.3–4.8% of cases.
  • Acute hemorrhagic conjunctivitis: Less common but highly contagious, this is passed on by hand-eye contact and possibly touching surfaces where the virus is present.
  • COVID-19: Between 1% and 6% of people with the virus develop pink eye. The virus may transmit through contact with eye tissues and discharge.

Viral pink eye can:

  • stem from an infection that spreads from the nose to the eyes
  • spread from one eye to another
  • transmit via droplets from a cough or sneeze
  • result from an upper respiratory infection or cold
  • occur with other symptoms, such as a fever and body aches, depending on the cause

Viral pink eye is highly contagious for 10–14 days and can take 14–30 days to disappear entirely.

What is the link between COVID-19 and conjunctivitis?

3. Bacterial pink eye

A mild bacterial pink eye infection usually lasts about a week. Without treatment, it can take two weeks to go away completely.

With treatment, it should start to improve after 3–4 days of starting antibiotics. A person must take the whole course of antibiotics, or it may recur.

If pink eye does not improve quickly with antibiotic drops, it is likely to be viral rather than bacterial pink eye.

What is infective conjunctivitis?

4. Uveitis and other causes

Sometimes an autoimmune disease or other condition can cause symptoms that resemble conjunctivitis.

Examples include:

Sometimes inflammation can occur for no apparent reason.

These types of pink eye are not contagious. But, they need medical attention, as they may lead to complications.

Viral or bacterial pink eye can spread from one person to another through:

  • sharing personal hygiene or other items
  • shaking hands or other close personal contact
  • using unclean or old makeup that has collected bacteria
  • touching the eye with dirty hands
  • using contact lenses where pathogens are present
  • handling items where bacteria or viruses are present and then touching the eyes
  • coughing and sneezing
  • touching an infected eye and then the other eye

Pink eye can also be a symptom of an underlying viral or bacterial infection that may be contagious, such as COVID-19 or gonococcal or chlamydial infections.

What is chlamydial conjunctivitis?

When the symptoms of bacterial or viral pink eye symptoms are present, the condition is likely to be contagious.

Seven signs of conjunctivitis are:

A day care, school, or workplace may ask a person not to return until their symptoms have cleared.

Why does pink eye happen and what are the treatment options?

The following are some of the more frequently asked questions about pink eye.

Can pink eye go away in 3 days?

Most pink eye infections take 1–2 weeks to resolve without treatment, but it can take up to 30 days. Home remedies, such as a warm compress several times a day, can help to speed up this healing time.

What are some home remedies for pink eye?

What gets rid of pink eye fast?

For bacterial pink eye, using antibiotics can help speed up the healing process. Viral pink eye will usually heal on its own.

People can also take steps to ease the symptoms of pink eye, such as taking over-the-counter painkillers or putting a warm, damp washcloth over their eyes for a few minutes several times a day.

Can someone with pink eye go to school?

If pink eye is infectious, a person should not usually spend time in close contact with others, such as at work or school, until symptoms clear. A doctor can advise when it is safe to return to everyday activities.

How does pink eye affect toddlers?

How long does pink eye stay contagious?

Pink eye is usually contagious for 10–14 days. People should wash their hands frequently and avoid close contact with others to reduce the risk of transmission.

Though common and sometimes painful, pink eye is not often a major concern. If an infection is present, people should avoid others until symptoms clear, as it can be very contagious.

Most people can return to work, school, or day care once symptoms have cleared. Often, pink eye goes away on its own, but treatment can help manage discomfort, and antibiotics may clear a bacterial infection more rapidly.