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Alexa Englehart

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About Author — Alexa currently lives in sunny San Diego, California. When not writing, she enjoys running, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, and reading.

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How Can You Tell If You Have Pink Eye?

Your eyes are complex organs comprising over 2 million moving parts that all work in conjunction to give you the power of sight. Your eyes can reportedly distinguish between 500 shades of gray and more than 2.7 million different colors.

The eye is also susceptible to a wide range of diseases and disorders. Perhaps the most common is pink eye, or conjunctivitis, which reportedly affects about 3 million kids and adults in the United States every year. With so many different ocular diseases out there, how can you tell if you have pink eye? Let’s take a closer look at the disease, its most common signs and symptoms, and forms of treatment.

Understanding Pink Eye

Pink eye is an infection of the eye’s conjunctiva, which is the thin mucus layer that lines the outer surface of your eye’s sclera (the white parts of your eyes). Your sclera is home to countless blood vessels that normally remain thin and unnoticeable.

However, any foreign matter or harmful microbes that enter your eye can cause inflammation, causing the blood vessels to dilate, making them more prominent in appearance. This leads to the characteristic redness when your eyes are irritated.
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What Causes Pink Eye?

Pink eye is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, but it can also be caused by allergens or irritants in your environment, and is highly contagious. The virus most commonly responsible for pink eye is adenovirus, which is also associated with upper respiratory infections and sore throats. Other viruses that may cause pink eye include:

  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Picornavirus
  • Poxvirus
  • Varicella zoster virus

Next to viral infections, pink eye is most often caused by bacterial infections. The two most common bacteria that cause pink eye are Staphylococcus, the culprit in staph infections in instances of food poisoning, and Streptococcus, which is best known for its implication in strep throat.

It can also be caused by cat-scratch disease and Haemophilus influenzae type B, which is known for causing pneumonia and other diseases in infants and young children. In rare instances, you may get pink eye from chlamydia or Gonococcus, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea.

Allergic triggers for pink eye tend to be the same substances that cause your allergies, including pollen, dust, and pet or animal dander. Chemical and environmental irritants can vary from place to place, person to person, but they can include:

  • Foreign objects in the eyes
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Sprays (deodorant, hair spray, pest deterrents, etc.)
  • Household cleaners
  • Smog
  • Industrial pollutants

Signs and Symptoms of Pink Eye

The characteristic symptom of pink eye is a pink or red shade in your eyelids and the area of your eyes that is normally white. From there, the symptoms can vary depending on what is specifically causing your pink eye, but some general signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Eye discharge of varying shades and thicknesses
  • Increased production of tears
  • Itchy, burning eyes
  • Irritation in the eyes
  • Increased sensitivity to lights
  • Crustiness in the lashes and eyelids
  • Grittiness in the eyes
  • Generally feeling like there’s something stuck in your eye

Viral pink eye is characterized mainly by a thin, watery discharge. This discharge is clear, so it may seem like your eyes are watery or you’re tearing up. It may otherwise appear as a slightly thick white discharge. Viral pink eye tends to occur more during the early spring and late fall.

Viral pink eye also frequently causes cold-like symptoms, including runny nose, sinus congestion, and coughing. Your eyelids may also appear puffy or swollen. For some people, the areas in front of the ears may feel tender, swollen or painful. This is because the infection has spread to the lymph nodes in front of your ears.

Bacterial pink eye comes with a wide range of symptoms that are slightly distinct from viral forms of the disease. A bacterial infection generally comes with more discharge or drainage than the viral form. Instead of a clear or white discharge, bacterial pink eye features a moderate to large amount of thick discharge that appears yellow, green, or grey in color.

This discharge or drainage may cause your eyelids and eyelashes to stick together. Pink eye caused by bacterial infection also tends to come with more pain, though still mild. You may also experience swelling in your upper eyelid, which can cause it to droop (a condition called pseudoptosis).

Pink eye triggered by allergens can also come with many of the same symptoms of seasonal allergies along with the itching, swelling, and tears in your eyes. You thankfully should not have much pain in your eyes, but you may experience sneezing, an itchy nose, and a scratchy throat.
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Diagnosing Pink Eye

Pink eye is usually diagnosed with a simple eye examination, and can be diagnosed by an online doctor. The type of pink eye you are suffering from can generally be determined by the symptoms, signs, and your personal health history. For instance, you may have knowingly come into contact with someone with pink eye.

Viral conjunctivitis tends to follow a case of the cold or an infection of the upper respiratory tract. You shouldn’t require any lab tests, though your doctor may order tests if you appear to be suffering a more severe form of viral pink eye. These lab tests usually just require a sample of the discharge coming from your infected eye.

Bacterial pink eye usually just occurs in one eye and may accompany ear infections. Your doctor may take a sample of the discharge for lab tests that can help to determine the type of bacteria causing the problem and the best mode of treatment.

Treatments for Pink Eye

For viral forms of pink eye, you generally do not require medication. It should run its course and clear up between seven days and two weeks without any long-term consequences. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, but your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to treat more severe forms of viral pink eye, like those caused by the herpes simplex virus or varicella zoster virus.

For all other cases of treating pink eye, your doctor may prescribe lubricating eye drops to soothe irritation and provide some relief. Otherwise, you may be best suited to staying at home and resting. You can use a warm or cold compress on your closed eyes to provide some comfort.

Bacterial pink eye can be easily and quickly treated using antibiotics. These antibiotics come in the form of topical ointments and eye drops. Prescription antibiotics are effective in killing the bacteria, and you should see noticeable improvements in your condition within the first 24 hours after taking antibiotics. However, even without antibiotics or other medical treatment, bacterial conjunctivitis should only last seven to ten days before you make a full recovery.

If you have allergic conjunctivitis, you should see drastic improvements once you eliminate or significantly reduce your contact with the allergen. If that’s not possible, your doctor can prescribe allergy medications and decongestant eye drops to help ease symptoms.

Conditions Similar to Pink Eye

While pink eye is most prominently known for causing redness in the eyes, it’s not the only condition or disease that can cause that symptom. This can make it difficult for you to determine what you’re actually sick with. Some other common conditions that are similar to pink eye include:

Keratitis – Keratitis is inflammation of the cornea, which is the clear tissue at the front of your eye, covering your pupils and iris. Keratitis can be caused by bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections, but it may also be caused by minor injuries to your cornea or wearing your contacts for too long. Much like pink eye, keratitis can cause:

  • Eye redness
  • An excess amount of tears
  • Eye discharge
  • Pain or irritation in your eyes
  • Blurry or decreased vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Feeling like something is in your eyes

Blepharitis – Blepharitis describes inflammation of the eyelids and usually involves the area of both eyelids where your eyelashes grow. The condition has several causes but mainly occurs when the oil glands at the base of your eyelashes become clogged. Thankfully, the condition is fairly common and treatable. If you have blepharitis, you may experience:

  • Irritated, watery eyes
  • Burning or stinging sensation in your eyes
  • Itchy eyelids often leading to constant eye rubbing
  • Dandruff or crusty debris at the base of your eyelashes
  • Grittiness
  • Feeling like something is in your eyes

Dry eye – This is a straightforward disease with a complex cause. It occurs when your tears can’t provide adequate lubrication to your eyes. This if often caused by either not producing enough tears or producing low quality tears. It can also be caused by increased evaporation of tears, which may result from blinking less often, underlying issues, or environmental issues (wind, smoke, dry air). Symptoms of dry eye include:

  • Red eyes
  • Stinging, burning, or itchiness in your eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Eye fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stringy mucus or discharge around the eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • A sensation of having something in your eyes

Uveitis – Another form of eye inflammation, uveitis affects the uvea, which is the middle layer of tissue within your eye wall. Warning signs of the condition can come on quickly and affect just one or both eyes.

It’s most usually caused by an infection, injury, or inflammatory or autoimmune disease, though the cause may ultimately be difficult to pin down. In its most severe state, uveitis can cause permanent vision loss. Common symptoms of the disease include:

  • Eye redness
  • Pain and irritation in the eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Dark, floating spots in your field of vision

As you can see, the symptoms for all of these eye disorders overlap and bare similarities with each other and with pink eye. The only way to truly know if you have pink eye or a different ailment is to see a doctor and receive a proper diagnosis.

Read more on our Pink Eye Series:

Pink Eye

How to Treat Pink Eye

How to Treat Pink Eye Many people tend to take their eyes and vision for granted. Your eyes are amazing, powerful organs that take in the world around you for your brain to interpret. You may not be blinking enough, or you may rub your eyes frequently, allowing bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other irritants and […]

Alexa Englehart
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Pink Eye Signs, Remedies, and Treatments

What Is Pink Eye? Pink eye, known medically as conjunctivitis, is a common condition that can affect both children and adults. The “bloodshot” appearance of your eye comes from inflammation of the conjunctiva, a thin membrane lining the inside surface of your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. Normally transparent in appearance, your conjunctiva […]

Mark Spera
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Antibiotics for Viral Conjunctivitis

Antibiotics for Viral Conjunctivitis Viral conjunctivitis is a severe and contagious infection of your eye’s conjunctiva. It occurs when viruses, similar to the ones that cause the common cold and flu, rubella, measles and chickenpox get in the eye. It is typically caused by adenovirus and enterovirus. Viral conjunctivitis is especially caused by adenovirus serotypes […]

Leah McCabe
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Pink Eye in Babies & Toddlers

Pink Eye in Babies & Toddlers Approximately 1% of all primary care visits in the U.S. are for pink eye. Pink eye in toddlers is very common and generally not dangerous. Pink eye in newborns, on the other hand, can be a sign of a very serious infection and can lead to blindness if not […]

Dr. Umer Khan
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Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Bacterial Conjunctivitis Bacterial Conjunctivitis also called pink eye is an infection in one or both eyes that causes swelling of the conjunctiva, bloodshot eyes and thick discharge. It can affect both children and adults though, it is more common among children. Read on to learn more about bacterial conjunctivitis, causes, symptoms treatments and more. What […]

Leah McCabe