Eye infection may be highly contagious, UT Southwestern doctor warns

The good news about getting a nasty case of pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is that the infection usually runs its course without permanent damage.

The bad news: the viral form of conjunctivitis is highly contagious and can stay on surfaces for several days, potentially unleashing a widespread outbreak.

“This is a very hardy, robust virus that lives very well outside of the body. Tears are the principal vector for transmission. Anyone who touches a surface with the virus inoculated on it from an infected person and then touches their face can get infected,” said Dr. James McCulley, Chair of Ophthalmology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

If the infection involves a sore throat as well, the virus can be spread through the air when the individual coughs, resulting in direct aerosol exposure or from contact with an inoculated surface. Incubation period for the viral infection is three to five days.

The leading cause of conjunctivitis is an adenovirus, Dr. McCulley said. And when the cornea is also infected, keratoconjunctivitis is the likely outcome, with associated light sensitivity and blurred vision. Symptoms may include red, watery eyes, sinus congestion, and runny nose. Someone with pink eye is typically infectious for 10 to 14 days.

“Worst-case scenario is this infection can initiate an immune response in the cornea, resulting in significant light sensitivity and blurred vision,” he said. “These changes fade away over time on their own, which can take weeks to months, and symptoms can be suppressed with steroid eye drops.”

While viral conjunctivitis is not treated with antibiotics, those affected should see a doctor to ensure correct diagnosis and treatment. Those diagnosed with bacterial pink eye may be prescribed antibiotics. While steroid eye drops may be beneficial in some viral infections, they worsen bacterial infections.

The key takeaway for the public is to take precautions to prevent further transmission of a potentially contagious virus: wash your hands frequently in public places and avoid touching your face.

“The bottom line is this is a very hardy, common virus that is highly contagious,” Dr. McCulley said.