Can You Go to Work With Pink Eye?

What should you do about pink eye when you have work obligations? Aside from one or both eyes appearing pink and possibly having some discharge, you often feel fine otherwise. You know you could be accomplishing a lot at work, but should you go inwith pink eye?

Answering that depends on the type of pink eye you have. Pink eye occurs when the transparent conjunctiva that covers the white part of the eye (sclera) becomes inflamed.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) can be contagious, resulting from bacterial or viral pathogens. Or, it can be caused by noncontagious sources such as allergies or chemicals (like chlorine in pool water). If you have noncontagious pink eye, feel free to go to work. With contagious pink eye, it's a different story.

This article looks at how contagious pink eye is, whether this means you should stay home (and for how long), and other important information for navigating work while dealing with contagious pink eye.

Man with pink eye at computer in office setting

AndreyPopov / Getty Images

Should You Stay Home If You Have Pink Eye?

You'll need to talk to a healthcare provider about whether you should stay home. If pink eye is your only symptom and you're free of fever, the healthcare provider (an ophthalmologist, primary care physician, or other medical professional) may tell you that you can go to work.

If you have a fever or a job that puts you in close contact with others to whom conjunctivitis can easily spread, your healthcare provider may instruct you to remain at home.

Know the Pink Eye Type

It's important to know just what kind of pink eye you're dealing with. Both bacterial and viral pink eye are contagious. But, pink eye from allergies like pollen or irritants like chlorine are not infectious and cannot be spread to others.

How Contagious Is Pink Eye?

Both bacterial and viral pink eye are extremely contagious. If you have it, you can easily spread it to anyone who comes into contact with you, including your coworkers. This is why it's important not to go to work. Even though there are ways to minimize the spread of pink eye, as long as it is active, you could still spread the infection.

How Is Pink Eye Spread?

There are several ways that contagious pink eye can be spread. If you have this condition, you can spread it by:

  • Coughing or sneezing near someone else
  • Shaking someone's hand or simply touching them, especially after having touched your eye
  • Touching your eye and then touching a surface like a desk or a door knob or object like a pen

There are some steps you can take to help minimize the spread. These include:

  • Keep your hands away from your eyes.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly if you must touch the eye for any reason. Try soaping your hands with warm water for at least 20 seconds each time you wash them. If you are on the go and inadvertently touch your eye, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands.
  • When cleaning the crust or discharge from your eyes, use a fresh warm, wet washcloth or new cotton ball each time. Immediately clean the washcloth in hot water with detergent and thoroughly clean your hands when done.
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses, which by nature involve touching your eye.
  • Keep separate items normally shared, such as towels and linens. Avoid sharing anything that may touch the eye, such as drops or makeup.
  • Stay away from swimming.

How Long Is Pink Eye Contagious?

Unfortunately, if your eye is red or other symptoms persist, it's still contagious. As a rule, this takes about five to seven days to resolve. It is possible to shorten this time if you have bacterial conjunctivitis and take antibiotics. After starting antibiotics, you are still considered contagious for about 24 hours.

Pink Eye Treatment

Pink eye is one of those conditions that, fortunately, runs its course with time. Bacterial pink eye usually goes away within two to five days. Sometimes, it can take up to two weeks to run its course.

If you have viral pink eye, it usually takes about one to two weeks to resolve on its own but can take as long as three weeks.

At-Home Treatment

There are some home and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies that may help with your pink eye. These approaches include:

  • Put artificial tears in your eyes to help soothe your eyes and allow them to feel less dry.
  • Use OTC painkillers, like Advil (ibuprofen), to reduce any discomfort
  • Apply a warm, damp compress to soothe your eyes. Keep this in place until it cools. You can also use this to remove any crustiness around your lashes. Be sure to use a clean, fresh cloth each time.

Medical Treatment

If you have bacterial pink eye, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotic ointment or drops to help speed recovery and reduce the risk of being contagious. Your healthcare practitioner may consider antibiotics in cases in which:

  • You are someone who is immunocompromised.
  • There's a lot of mucus or discharge.
  • Your provider is concerned that a certain bacterium may be the cause.

Keep in mind that if you have viral pink eye, antibiotics will not help. If you have pink eye from a herpes simplex virus (HSV), which can be associated with oral cold sores or genital herpes, or varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is responsible for chicken pox, your healthcare practitioner may prescribe antiviral medication. Otherwise, the pink eye will be allowed to simply run its course.

Pink Eye Prevention

Unfortunately, bacterial and viral pink eye tend to be very contagious. Keep in mind that the pathogen can stay on surfaces for up to two weeks. Still, there are some things you can do to avoid getting pink eye. Steps to take include:

  • Keep your hands clean, either by washing them frequently with soap and water or, in a pinch, using hand sanitizer.
  • Make sure not to rub or touch your eyes.
  • Frequently wash linens and towels and avoid sharing any products that someone with the infection may have used.

Summary

Because some forms of pink eye are contagious, it's important to stay home until your healthcare provider says otherwise. Bacterial and viral pink eye can be spread through particles in the air after coughing or sneezing, as well as germs on a surface such as a desk or a door knob.

Expect that you will remain contagious for as long as the eye is red, which should take about a week to resolve. You may also be able to speed recovery with treatment.

A Word From Verywell

It can be frustrating to have a case of pink eye when you're needed at work. But unless your healthcare provider says otherwise, you should stay home until it resolves. It is a highly contagious condition and not one you want to be spreading unnecessarily.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is pink eye contagious?

    For as long as you have symptoms such as a red eye, your pink eye is contagious. It will likely be five to seven days before you are not contagious. If you have bacterial pink eye and take antibiotics, it's contagious for about 24 hours after beginning antibiotics.

  • How can you tell if pink eye is bacterial or viral?

    Talk with a healthcare provider to see what is the most likely cause. Your pink eye may be from a viral source if you're also contending with a cold or other respiratory illness, or you find that the eye's discharge is watery.

    Meanwhile, if you currently have an ear infection at the same time as pink eye, it is likely caused by bacteria. Also, the mucus tends to be thick rather than watery.

  • What is commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye?

    Seasonal allergies, which can come on suddenly and cause redness and tearing, may erroneously be confused with viral or bacterial pink eye. If this is something that you get every year at around this time, it may help to rule this out.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis (pink eye) prevention.

  3. University of Utah Moran Eye Center. What is pink eye?

  4. University of Pittsburg Medical Center. How long is pink eye contagious?

  5. National Eye Institute. Treatment for pink eye.

  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Quick home remedies for pink eye.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis (pink eye).

  8. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pink eye.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conjunctivitis (pink eye) diagnosis.