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What are the symptoms of pinkeye, and is it contagious?

Answer by:
Rod Moser, PA, PhD

Primary Care, WebMD Medical Expert
Ears: An Owner's Manual

Children under any suspicion of pinkeye will be quickly isolated from other children at school. The parent will be called, and the child excluded from school until they return with a doctor’s note. Granted, many types of pinkeye (conjunctivitis) are contagious. Combined with the hygiene practices of kids, pinkeye can quickly spread, especially in a preschool or day care.

The eye is very sensitive and easily becomes pink when irritated. Allergies top the list for causing irritation and eye itching. You will see children constantly rubbing or knuckling their watery eyes, with dirty hands of course. Allergies are not contagious, but they can sure set the stage for a secondary bacterial infection.

Highly chlorinated swimming pools cause pink or red eyes, too. This chemical conjunctivitis is not contagious, but a cautious teacher is not going to take the time to sort out the various types. They are going to exclude the child and have the medical provider properly diagnose them.

I often see children excluded with a stye, or babies excluded from child-care facilities with a clogged tear duct (nasolacrimal duct obstruction). These are not contagious.

Eyes get easily scratched during play. Sometimes, a baby with sharp, untrimmed fingernails will scratch his own corneas. A corneal abrasion is very painful, and the eyes will tear and become red or pink in response to this common injury.

Among the most common causes of pinkeye are bacterial and viral infections. These infections can be contagious. 

Viral conjunctivitis does not usually require antibiotic treatment and typically resolves in two to four weeks. There may be a thin, watery discharge from the eye. Some types of viral conjunctivitis can be serious, such as that caused by the herpes simplex virus.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is usually treated with antibiotic therapy. The discharge from the eye is thicker and can be profuse.

Often people with bacterial conjunctivitis can return to work or school 24 hours after starting antibiotic therapy. Those with viral conjunctivitis may need to wait until their symptoms resolve. Be sure to check with your doctor in both cases.