4 things you need to know about pink eye

It’s officially fall, everyone’s back in school, so let the germ spreading begin. When we’re in close quarters, indoors and sharing supplies, we often experience more sniffling, coughing and sore throats. These are also prime conditions for a nasty run-in with pink eye.

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is inflammation and irritation of the membrane lining over the white part of your eye. It’s most often caused by a common virus, but can occasionally come from a bacterial infection.

While pink eye isn’t dangerous, it’s not something you want in your home. Here are four things you should know about pink eye:

Highly Contagious
Pink eye is very contagious. That’s why we often see it spread quickly through schools, nursing homes or the family. The germs spread by direct contact – touching tears or mucus from the eye and then anything else. The virus can hang around for about two weeks, making it more likely to be passed on. There are about 3 million cases a year in the U.S. 

The symptoms of pink eye can be similar to other illnesses, like a cold or allergies: watery discharge, puffy or swollen eyes, irritation and light sensitivity. However, with pink eye, the symptoms start in one eye and spread to the other within a couple days due to cross contamination. You might also have an enlarged lymph node in front of the ear on the affected side. 

It's a good idea to see your doctor to rule out a bacterial infection or some other problem. During the office visit, we’ll talk about whether you have allergies, if you’ve been sick or exposed to people who are ill, whether you’ve started using any new makeup or had any other exposures to cause your eye irritation.

If the cause is bacterial, your doctor can prescribe some antibiotic eye drops to ease the symptoms and speed up healing. However if it’s viral, as most pink eye cases are, then you’ll need to wait it out, just like the common cold. I tell patients that artificial tears and cool compresses can help, in addition to some anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen.

If you work with the public, stay home until symptoms clear up. You can be contagious for up to 14 days while you have symptoms.


Here’s the fun part. In order to stop the viral spread, you have to take extra care to decontaminate your living and work space. It’s very important to stop touching near your eye and wash your hands frequently. Don’t hang onto or reuse tissues. Wash your towels and bedding. It’s also a good idea to disinfect common touch points such as faucets, door handles, kitchen appliances, computers and shared remotes or gaming controls.  

If you wear glasses, clean them frequently. Don’t forget the case. If you wear contact lenses, don’t wear them until symptoms have cleared up. Toss the case and start over with a new pair of lenses.  If you have hard contact lenses, disinfect them well.

This time of year, we can’t stress it enough – don’t touch your eyes, especially in public spaces, and wash your hands well. This can help you avoid pink eye and other similar viral infections.

Rebecca Kuennen is an ophthalmologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.