Is Pinkeye Contagious?
It May Be . . . Or It Might Not Be . . . It Depends Upon What the Cause Is . . .
But first what is pinkeye? Technically speaking pinkeye is called conjunctivitis and it is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin transparent membrane that covers the sclera - the white of the eye. When the blood vessels become inflamed they give the eye its pink appearance.
What causes pinkeye?
The most common cause is a viral infection. Only one eye may be affected and it will typically have a watery discharge. The eye may burn and feel itchy, but there should not be any extreme pain. Because it is a virus, antibiotics will not help. It will typically heal up on its own in a week or so. Using a eye wash (saline) or artificial tears may relieve some of the symptoms. Because it is a virus it is contagious and you must be careful not to spread the infection. (see tips below) You can usually return to day care, school, or work when symptoms begin to improve and you have no furthur discharge, typically in 3 or 4 days.
Another common cause of pinkeye is a bacterial infection.
Both eyes can be affected and you will probably have a yellow or greenish discharge. The eyelids may be stuck together upon awakening in the morning. The eye doctor will probably want to start you on an antibiotiic which will speed up the healing. There will be some irritation, but again there should be no extreme pain. Use a warm compress, such as a washcloth soaked in warm water, on your eye for a few minutes several times a day. This relieves discomfort and helps to clean off the crust that may form on your eyelashes. If you have been started on an antibiotic you can usually return to work or school after 24 hours if the synmptoms have improved and the discharge has been markedly reduced.
Allergies can make your eyes red and itchy and watery.
The main symptom is itching. Most people are aware if they have allergies such as hay fever that will make their eyes water and itch and turn pink or red. There are over the counter (non-prescription) eyedrops such as Zaditor that will help. Prescription medications such as Patanol or Elestat definitely help relieve eye allergies. It is usually best to stay away from Visine or similar products because they primarily shrink the blood vessels of the conjunctiva but don't deal with the actual cause of the inflammation. They can also have a rebound effect if overused. They can make the eye even more red. Pinkeye caused by allergies is not contagious.
Since pinkeye can be very contagious what should I do to prevent spreading the infection to other people or to my other eye?
Carefully wash your hands with soap and water for at least 15-20 seconds every time you touch around your eye. Wash your hands carefully every time you touch around your eye. Yes, I already said that. Its that important! Don't use the same washcloths, towels or pillows that the rest of your family or roommates are using. Or use paper towels. Change your pillowcase every day until the infection is gone. Do not touch your eyes with your fingers. (A good idea at all times) Use paper tissues like Kleenex to wipe. Do not wear or share eye makeup. You shouldn't be in public anyway. Avoid contact lenses until the infection is gone. Do not use over-the-counter eyedrops for more than a few days unless instructed to do so by your eye doctor.
It might not be pinkeye . . . if your eye hurts!
Then you may have a foreign body in your eye such as a piece of metal or something the wind blew in your eye. You may have scratched your cornea. Or you may have an infection in the deeper layers of the eye which is much more serious (anterior uveitis). Acute glaucoma can also cause redness and pain. These conditions require immediate treatment. You should take extra precaution if you wear contact lenses. You should not attempt to wear contacts when your eyes are irritated or infected. If you have a medical condition that decreases your body's ability to fight infection it may be more serious.