How Do You Get Pink Eye?

Experts explain pink eye, how it spreads, and how to know if you might have it.

Ask an eyecare provider, "How does pink eye spread?" and you might get a single-word response: "Quickly." But there's more that goes into understanding what causes pink eye than the knowledge that many cases are highly contagious.

For starters, there are actually three common types of pink eye, medically known as conjunctivitis—an infection or irritation of the conjunctiva, the thin tissue that covers the white of your eye and lines your lid. Your conjunctiva can become inflamed because of a virus, bacteria, or an allergic reaction. This inflammation enlarges the blood vessels causing it to look pink or red.

But how can you get pink eye? Knowing the answer to that question is key to avoiding the condition. Here's more about the underlying causes of pink eye in adults and children.

pink-eye conjunctivitis woman health eye ophthalmologist condition infection
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How Does Pink Eye Spread?

If you touch a person that is infected with pink eye, or an object they've touched, and then your eyes, you can contract the same infection. Pink eye can also spread through other close personal contact such as touching or shaking hands, and coughing or sneezing.

Not washing your hands and frequently touching your face can both play a big role in contracting pink eye. Other ways to develop pink eye include:

  • Poor contact lens hygiene
  • Foreign bodies in the eye (ie. a loose eyelash)
  • Indoor and outdoor air pollution
  • Fungi

How Can You Reduce Your Risk of Pink Eye?

Practice Good Hygiene

It is important for people with pink eye to practice good hand hygiene so that they don't spread the infection. You should wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.

After washing your hands, you should wipe any discharge that comes from your eye. You should do this several times every day by using a clean, wet washcloth (which should be washed after use). When you're finished, wash your hands again—you don't want to spread the germs anywhere else.

What Is the Treatment for Pink Eye?

If you do develop conjunctivitis yourself, take your contacts out and discard them. Wear glasses until your healthcare provider gives you the OK to put your lenses back in. Additionally, clean your glasses frequently since discharge from your eyes may cling to your frames or lenses. When it's time to wear contacts again, start with a new pair—as well as a fresh case and a brand-new bottle of solution.

Always wash and dry your hands before handling your contacts. Use the solution and storage methods recommended by your eyecare provider. All these steps become even more important if someone in your household already has pink eye.

In fact, replace or at least wash everything you can after someone in your household develops bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, including sheets, towels, faucets, and other bathroom fixtures.

Even if you live alone, you can reinfect yourself, "and that's really the biggest reason why this ends up lasting for weeks in a lot of patients," indicated Gene Kim, MD, ophthalmologist in UT Health Austin's Mitchel and Shannon Wong Eye Institute.

What Is Allergic Conjunctivitis?

Unlike bacterial and viral conjunctivitis, which are infections, allergic conjunctivitis occurs when your conjunctiva is irritated by something—usually allergens—in your surrounding environment—home, neighborhood, or office. While this type of pink eye is not contagious and transferable, it might warrant a visit to a healthcare provider to learn which part of your eye is infected.

How Does Allergic Pink Eye Develop?

You might develop symptoms during allergy season in the spring or fall, triggered by the same pollen or trees that cause seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever. The symptoms are usually the same—itchy, burning, watery, swollen eyes that appear pink or red.

Pet dander is another irritant in your environment that could trigger allergic pink eye in adults and children. "Cats are a very common cause of allergic conjunctivitis, especially if maybe a child hasn't been around animals much and they slept over at a friend's who has a cat," said Vivienne Sinh Hau, MD, vitreoretinal physician and surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Riverside Medical Center. "Their eyes might be all itchy and watery the next day."

Particles in the air—smoke from wildfires, cigarettes, or air pollution—can also irritate the eyes. Additionally, chemicals in water, such as chlorine in a swimming pool, as well as creams, cosmetics, and facial cleansers can cause your conjunctiva to become irritated and result in allergic conjunctivitis.

What’s the Treatment for Allergic Conjunctivitis?

The best way to avoid allergic conjunctivitis is to steer clear of allergens that irritate your eyes when possible. If that is not possible and you've tried a home remedy, and the problem persists, seek the help of a healthcare provider or specialist, like an allergist for further care. After properly assessing your symptoms, you may be prescribed meds or recommended an over-the-counter relief aid like eye drops or an antihistamine.

When To Seek Help From a Healthcare Provider

In most cases, your healthcare provider can tell if you have pink eye by the symptoms. These include redness or a pink hue in the whites of your eyes, discharge that may be watery or sticky, swelling of the conjunctiva or eyelid, and a general feeling of discomfort, scratchiness, itching, or burning.

While not every case of pink eye requires medical treatment, anyone with a sudden onset of these symptoms see a healthcare provider. Some cases can turn serious, and symptoms can mimic those of other vision-threatening eye conditions.

You might not always know which germ, exactly, is to blame for your infection. While there are sometimes subtle differences in symptoms, your healthcare provider may not perform a culture to see for sure unless your pink eye is serious or doesn't respond to treatment, Dr. Kim stated.

For cases of allergic conjunctivitis, your eyecare provider can help you think back through changes in your routine to identify potential culprits. If you can't find one, seeking help from a specialist like an allergist can be helpful.

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Sources 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.
  1. National Eye Institute. Pink eye.

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

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

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