Most people have heard of pink eye before—it’s practically a household term for any kind of eye irritation or infection.

Here at True Eye, our optometrists regularly help patients diagnose and treat pink eye infection. In this blog, they share what patients should know about pink eye, including the different types, treatment options, and prevention tips.

The 3 Different Types of Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

The eyeball and inside of the upper and lower eyelids are lined with a membrane called the conjunctiva. This membrane is the first line of defense against any type of surface infections. Pink eye is also called conjunctivitis—and “conjunctivitis” refers to some kind of infection, inflammation, or swelling that occurs in the conjunctiva membrane.

There are three different types of conjunctivitis: allergic, bacterial, and viral. None of these are pleasant, but optometrists can help treat them all. If you suspect you may have pink eye, we recommend that you call one of our locations for further assistance. We have specialized equipment that’s able to quickly rule out and diagnose what type of infection you have. It doesn’t hurt that it usually ends up costing less at our eye doctor’s office than with any general practitioner!

1. Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is exactly what it sounds like: an inflammation of the conjunctiva triggered by an allergic reaction. This type of conjunctivitis is, thankfully, not contagious. Allergic pink eye is caused by an allergen (like pet dander, dust, smoke, or another irritant) getting into your eye.

The most common symptoms are weepy eyes, some itchiness, and general discomfort. Our most effective course of treatment for allergic conjunctivitis uses over-the-counter or prescription eye drops, depending on the severity of the case.

2. Bacterial Conjunctivitis

When most people think of “pink eye,” they’re probably thinking of bacterial conjunctivitis. After all, its telltale symptom of bloodshot eyes is where “pink eye” gets its name. This is a bacterial infection that usually stems from someone transferring bacteria by scratching or rubbing around the eye with unwashed hands. Wearing contact lenses too long and poor personal hygiene habits are also risk factors for bacterial conjunctivitis.

Bacterial conjunctivitis often causes discomfort in the form of pain, light sensitivity, and a crusty discharge from the eyes. It’s very contagious, so we recommend washing your hands with soap and water regularly and avoiding touching your eyes.

To treat bacterial infections, your optometrist can prescribe special eye drops, ointment, or antibiotics.

3. Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis has many similar symptoms to bacterial pink eye. However, viral pink eye is caused by a virus and symptoms may appear faster than they would for a bacterial infection. You may get conjunctivitis if you have a respiratory or intestinal virus (or come into contact with someone who does) and the virus spreads to your eye.

Viral conjunctivitis may cause irritation, light sensitivity, or a watery discharge.  It is highly contagious, therefore, it is essential that you keep your hands clean by washing with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes.   

There are a few ways optometrists can treat viral infections—most commonly with a prescription course of steroidal drops or an antiviral medication.

How to Get Rid of Pink Eye

As we outlined above, the best type of treatment for pink eye depends on the cause of your infection. If you’re struggling with severe discomfort or symptoms that aren’t getting better, an optometrist can help diagnose each type of pink eye and help you find an effective treatment option.

Patients in the Tampa Bay and Fort Myers areas can click here to schedule an appointment at their nearest True Eye location. In the meantime, follow these at-home tips to reduce discomfort and prevent the spread of conjunctivitis:

  1. Always wash your hands before and after touching your eye, before going to the bathroom, or before and after interacting with children. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  2. Avoid touching your eyes and others’ eyes. Touching your eyes is the easiest way to spread an infection—so don’t rub or scratch your eyes. Skip your contact lenses until symptoms disappear.
  3. Use a warm compress on your eyes. Placing a washcloth dampened with warm water over your eyes for a few minutes at a time can loosen any crust and soothe irritation. Be sure to use a clean washcloth every time.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pink Eye

What is commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye?

The most common pink eye symptoms are irritation, redness, and crusty discharge from the eye—but pink eye isn’t the only eye condition that can cause these. Some conditions have symptoms that closely mimic pink eye, including:

  • Blepharitis is when oil glands around the eyelashes become blocked. Some of the most common symptoms of blepharitis are eye dryness and scaling around the eyelashes. Similar to pink eye, blepharitis can be caused by allergies, bacteria, or viruses.
  • Keratitis is inflammation of the cornea, which is the layer on the front of your eye that protects your iris and pupil. It’s often caused by a minor injury to the cornea, like a scratch, or by wearing contact lenses for too long. You’ll need an optometrist to diagnose and treat keratitis—so be sure to visit a doctor, especially if your symptoms are affecting your vision.
  • Uveitis is inflammation of the uvea, which is the part of the eye that includes the iris. In addition to redness and irritation, uveitis might also cause floaters in your vision or blurriness. Uveitis is a serious condition, so contact a doctor immediately if you notice problems with your vision in addition to other symptoms.
  • Styes are small, reddish bumps that appear around, on, or inside the eyelid. These painful, sensitive bumps happen when a small follicle near the eye gets infected. If your eye pain is limited to a single spot on your eyelid, you may have a stye instead of conjunctivitis.

Your optometrist may suspect one of these conditions if treatment for conjunctivitis doesn’t clear up the discomfort, if you experience any symptoms that aren’t associated with pink eye, or if you’re at high risk for one of these conditions.

Regardless of what you might have, it’s always a good choice to talk with a doctor if you have any concerns about your eye health.

How does pink eye spread? How long is it contagious?

Bacterial or viral pink eye spreads from person to person. Most commonly, an infected person might touch their eye and then touch a shared object, which contaminates the object with germs.

When another person touches the contaminated object and then touches their eyes, the germs can cause pink eye. It’s possible to pass along germs by sharing pillows or towels, makeup or makeup tools, phones, and contact lenses.

Bacterial and viral pink eye are very contagious—so it’s possible to pass the infection along as long as you have symptoms. To avoid getting others sick, wash your hands regularly, don’t share personal hygiene products or cosmetics, and talk to a doctor if your symptoms don’t seem to clear up on their own.

How long does pink eye last?

Pink eye usually clears up on its own in about 1-2 weeks, though there are at-home remedies and other treatments that can help relieve symptoms. 

However, you should go to a doctor if:

  • Your symptoms don’t seem to be going away or improving after a few days
  • The pain or discomfort is making it hard to sleep at night or go about daily life
  • You’re having trouble seeing (blurry vision)
  • Your eyes are sensitive to light
  • Your symptoms don’t improve after taking doctor-prescribed antibiotics

Your optometrist may be able to prescribe stronger medication to help fight an infection.

Is pink eye a symptom of COVID-19?

Doctors have learned that pink eye symptoms like redness and irritation can sometimes be a symptom of COVID-19. However, having conjunctivitis doesn’t automatically mean you have COVID-19.

If you’re having other symptoms of COVID-19, like a fever or shortness of breath, call your doctor right away and wear a mask when you’re around others.