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Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Symptoms | Signs to Look Out For

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, has a variety of symptoms, but it is often easily identified due to the swelling and discoloration it causes in the eye and surrounding eyelid. 

While not usually serious, some cases of conjunctivitis can cause lasting harm if not properly treated. See a doctor if symptoms seem severe, worsen, or don’t improve. If symptoms don’t improve after using a prescribed treatment, it’s likely that the condition was misdiagnosed. 

What Are the Common Symptoms of Pink Eye?

A variety of things can cause pink eye, but the three most common are viruses, bacteria, and allergens. While the cause of pink eye can affect some of the symptoms, there are also some common symptoms that are likely to develop regardless of the cause.

A person with pink eye will generally develop some discoloration on the whites of their eyes, with the white part appearing either pink or red (hence the term pink eye). An affected eye and eyelid will likely experience some swelling. 

Tear production will increase, and it will often feel as though a foreign body is in the eye, such as dust. You may feel an urge to itch or touch your eye. Because the eye has swelled, contact lenses can become uncomfortable and may not be able to stay in place. 

Symptoms Signaling Different Causes

While there is significant symptom overlap between different types of pink eye, the root cause of pink eye can still determine some of the specifics of the symptoms. This may help a doctor diagnose the cause and the best way to treat the pink eye.

Viral Pink Eye

Viral conjunctivitis may occur with symptoms of a respiratory infection. Some people may experience symptoms that are similar to those from a cold or flu. 

While the infection will generally start in one eye, it can spread relatively easily to the other eye within a week. Rather than a thick pussy discharge, an eye affected by viral conjunctivitis will usually have a more watery discharge. 

Bacterial Pink Eye

Bacterial pink eye is more closely associated with thick puss than other types of pink eye. It may cause the eyelids to stick together, especially upon waking in the morning. 

A bacterial eye infection of this type can sometimes occur alongside an ear infection, so look out for any ear symptoms. Let your doctor know about those symptoms, even if they seem unrelated.

Allergic Pink Eye

Allergic conjunctivitis usually occurs in both eyes at about the same time. Both eyes will generally be exposed to the same allergen at the same time, such as pollen in the air. Itchiness and tearing can be fairly intense with allergic pink eye, as can eye swelling. 

Depending on how allergies affect you, other allergy symptoms may occur, such as an itchy or runny nose, sneezing, or a scratchy throat.

Irritant-Caused Pink Eye

Irritant conjunctivitis is caused by an irritant hitting the eye, such as dust or chemicals in the air. The severity of this type of pink eye can vary significantly, depending on the type of irritant an eye was exposed to and the amount of that irritant. 

It will often occur in both eyes for similar reasons to allergic conjunctivitis if the irritant is spread throughout the air, such as if you work in a smoky area. It can occur in one eye if the irritant was instead introduced to the eye in a different way, such as getting on your hand and then you rub your eye. I

Irritant conjunctivitis can produce both watery eyes and a mucus-like discharge. Often, the best clue that your pink eye is of this variety is the place or situation where you started to notice your eye felt irritated.

Who Is More at Risk for Getting Pink Eye?

Anyone can get pink eye, but children are at greater risk of developing bacterial pink eye. Additionally, people who regularly work or play outside or in areas where their eyes might be exposed to irritants or allergens are also more at risk of developing pink eye. 

Contact lens wearers can be at especially significant risk of pink eye if they don’t closely follow the relevant instructions for storing, cleaning, and using their lenses. One common issue is people wearing contacts longer than recommended or not cleaning them properly, which can easily lead to irritant-caused conjunctivitis. 

When Should You See a Medical Professional for Pink Eye?

While seeing a doctor isn’t always necessary for pink eye, the eye is a sensitive organ. If you’re ever unsure whether to see a doctor or your symptoms seem severe, you should see one to avoid risking any permanent damage. 

The CDC recommends seeing a doctor for pink eye if these conditions are present:

  • You feel pain in your eyes.
  • Your eyes are an intense red rather than light red or pink.
  • Your eyes feel sensitive to light or your vision is blurred, even if you wipe away any discharge in your eye.
  • Your symptoms start to get worse or don’t seem to be improving.
  • You have a weaker than usual immune system, such as if you have HIV or receive certain types of medical treatment.

The CDC also recommends taking newborns with pink eye to see a doctor right away. Since babies cannot properly communicate the severity of their symptoms and their bodies are especially vulnerable to various health complications, it’s best to err on the side of caution and seek medical care.

References

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): Symptoms. (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): Causes. (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): Treatment. (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Conjunctivitis. (December 2022). StatPearls.

Most Cases of Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Don’t Require Antibiotics. (December 2017). Harvard Health Publishing.

Viral Conjunctivitis. (April 2023). StatPearls.

Bacterial Conjunctivitis. (June 2023). StatPearls.

Management of Acute Conjunctivitis. (July 2014). Current Ophthalmology Reports.

Pediatric Conjunctivitis: A Review of Clinical Manifestations, Diagnosis, and Management. (May 2023). Children.

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