If someone has pink eye and no symptoms, an employer may allow them to go to work with a doctor’s approval. However, if symptoms persist — and until treatment has finished — it is best to avoid close contact with others.

Allergens, bacteria, or viruses can cause pink eye, also called conjunctivitis. Depending on the cause, antibiotics, eye drops, or avoiding the trigger can help treat pink eye.

This article explains whether pink eye is contagious, how long to stay out of work with pink eye, when to return to work, treatments and home remedies, and when to contact a doctor.

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Yes, pink eye is contagious.

Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis can be very contagious. It can easily transmit from person to person. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

The same virus that causes the common cold also causes viral conjunctivitis.

The way germs spread may vary, but they are usually transmitted via:

  • close personal contact, such as shaking hands, then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth
  • breathing in droplets from others coughing or sneezing into the air
  • touching a contaminated object or surface, then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth

Learn more about the differences between bacterial and viral conjunctivitis.

Generally, people with bacterial or viral pink eye should avoid close contact with others, such as at work or school, until the pink eye is no longer contagious.

If possible, employers may recommend a person work from home while recovering.

In some instances, it may be up to the employee and employer to decide whether to stay out of work. If the employee does remain at work, both parties need to take the right measures to protect others in the workplace.

A person can seek advice from an employer and doctor to determine the safest course of action.

Possible timelines

The type of conjunctivitis a person has can determine how long they should stay home from work:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Since this type of conjunctivitis is not contagious, a person can remain at work.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis improves in 2–5 days without treatment, but it can take up to 2 weeks to completely heal. Antibiotics may help reduce the length of infection and prevent transmission. A person should avoid being around other people for 1–2 weeks while receiving treatment and symptoms are still present.
  • Viral conjunctivitis: Most cases of viral conjunctivitis are highly contagious for 1 week, so a person should avoid contact with other people during recovery. Older research suggests people may experience the worst symptoms in the first 3–5 days and find they resolve in 7–14 days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in some cases, it may take up to 3 weeks to fully recover from viral conjunctivitis and 2 weeks to recover from bacterial conjunctivitis. However, this represents the worst-case scenario.

A person should only return to work after the bacterial or viral infection has cleared.

If someone has allergic conjunctivitis, they may be able to work throughout, since allergic pink eye is not contagious.

A person with pink eye may be able to attend activities at work if they no longer have any or all of the following symptoms:

Until the discharge from the eye has cleared, the pink eye may still be contagious.

People can discuss when to return to work and work-from-home policies, if possible, with their employer. They may also seek further medical guidance from a doctor.

Learn more about how long pink eye is contagious.

The majority of pink eye cases heal on their own.

People may also use over-the-counter (OTC) cold compresses and artificial tears to relieve the inflammation, redness, and dryness caused by pink eye.

A person who wears contact lenses should avoid wearing them until they no longer have symptoms. They can wear glasses instead. Contact lenses can spread the infection from eye to eye.

There are different treatment options depending on the type of conjunctivitis:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: A person may be able to use eye drops to get relief. If possible, a person can also avoid the allergen.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: A doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops. Antibiotics do not work for viral or allergic conjunctivitis.
  • Viral conjunctivitis: There is no specific treatment for viral conjunctivitis. The body must fight the virus. However, cool compresses and eye drops may provide some relief.

Learn more about causes and treatments for pink eye.

Prevent transmission

To prevent transmitting pink eye to other people or the other eye, people can follow these steps:

  • not sharing towels, bedsheets, or makeup
  • throwing away tissues after wiping eyes
  • washing hands frequently

According to the CDC, the following steps also help prevent transmitting pink eye:

  • washing hands for at least 20 seconds
  • avoiding touching or rubbing eyes
  • avoiding using the same eye drop bottle for unaffected eye
  • washing pillowcases and washcloths in hot water and detergent
  • cleaning eyeglasses regularly

Find out about home remedies for pink eye here.

In some cases, pink eye may not respond to treatment. People can consult a doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • moderate to severe eye pain
  • blurred vision
  • more sensitivity to light than usual
  • intense eye redness
  • more mucus in eyes than usual during the day
  • more mucus and crustiness in eyes than usual when waking up
  • symptoms that do not go away after using artificial tears and cold compresses for a few days

A person with pink eye who also has a weakened immune system, such as from another health condition or treatment, can contact a doctor for specific advice.

People may be able to be around others and go to work if they do not have active symptoms of pink eye and have finished their treatment.

However, if symptoms persist, a person should avoid close contact with others.

People may have symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis for up to 2 weeks and viral conjunctivitis for up to 3 weeks. Usually, the infection clears earlier. Symptoms may include eye redness, increased tear production, and discharge.

Pink eye may heal on its own, but in some cases, a person can use OTC or antibiotic eye drops and cold compresses to relieve pain and inflammation.