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What is Pink Eye? Everything You Need to Know About Conjunctivitis

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS

Have you ever started your day with a red, swollen eye greeting you in the mirror? If so, you're not alone. Pink eye, or conjunctivitis as it's medically termed, is a common eye condition that can turn a normal day into a battle with irritation and constant squinting. 

But what really is pink eye? Is it something you should be worried about? It's important to understand what causes it and, crucially, how to get rid of it. Don't worry – we've got your back. In this article, we're going to dive into the details of pink eye, covering its sneaky causes and the best methods to effectively get rid of it. 

Exploring the Causes of Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, can stem from a variety of sources. Some of the most frequently encountered causes include: 

  • Bacterial Infection: This form is commonly contracted through contact with bacteria-laden surfaces or direct human interaction, leading to a thick discharge from the eyes, which can be yellowish in color. 

  • Viral Infection: Often linked to the same viruses responsible for the common cold, this type of pink eye is characterized by watery, itchy eyes and is highly infectious. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Reactions to allergens like pollen, pet fur, or certain chemicals can lead to allergic conjunctivitis. This condition is typified by red, watery, and itchy eyes, often accompanied by other allergy symptoms such as sneezing or nasal congestion. 

Transmission Methods of Pink Eye 

There are several ways pink eye can spread. Bacterial conjunctivitis is typically acquired from contact with bacteria, which can exist on various surfaces or through person-to-person interaction. This type is especially prevalent in young children who are still mastering good hygiene practices and tend to touch everything. Adults, particularly those in close contact with young children, such as caregivers or parents, are also at risk. 

Viral conjunctivitis is often connected to viruses responsible for the common cold or flu. It's more common in people who have recently been ill with a viral infection or who have been close to someone who is sick. In addition, environmental allergens can lead to eye inflammation. This can occur due to reactions to seasonal allergens or to new products used near the eyes, like cosmetics or facial soaps. 

Considering the multiple ways in which pink eye can be spread, it is important to seek advice from an eye care professional as soon as any symptoms are noticed. 

Recognizing Pink Eye Symptoms

If you're suspecting pink eye, it's important to know the signs. Often, your eyes will be the first to alert you to a problem. Here are some common symptoms to watch for. Remember, pink eye can be tricky – you might experience only one of these symptoms, several of them, or all at the same time. Here's what to look for in your eyes: 

  • Redness or a pink tint in the white part of one or both eyes   

  • A gooey discharge from one or both eyes  

  • Increased tearing in one or both eyes  

  • Sensitivity to light  

  • Feeling discomfort or pain in the eyes  

  • Blurred vision   

Best Practices for Contact Lens Wearers with Pink Eye

If you're a contact lens user and think you might have pink eye, immediate action is necessary. As soon as any symptoms appear, remove your contact lenses. Continuing to wear your lenses during this time can worsen an infection and may even cause permanent damage to your eyesight. Remember, wearing even a fresh pair of contact lenses isn't advisable if you're experiencing signs of eye inflammation. After removing your lenses, it's essential to contact your eye doctor without delay to set up an appointment. Quick and appropriate care is crucial for halting the progression of the infection and protecting your eyesight. 

Understanding the Differences: Viral vs. Bacterial Pink Eye

To accurately pinpoint the cause of your pink eye, it's always advisable to seek a medical professional's assessment quickly. Nonetheless, certain symptoms can help differentiate between viral and bacterial types. Bacterial pink eye, also known as bacterial conjunctivitis, is often identified by a thick, sometimes yellow or green discharge from the eyes. On the other hand, viral pink eye, or viral conjunctivitis, is typically marked by a clear, tear-like watery discharge. While these symptoms can guide you towards understanding the type of pink eye you might have, only a qualified eye care professional can provide a conclusive diagnosis. 

When Pink Eye Isn’t an Infection

The term "pink eye" doesn't always equate to an eye infection. In some cases, redness and swelling on the eye's anterior surface may arise from causes other than classic conjunctivitis. For example, intense inflammation within the eye can cause a pink or red appearance, which could be linked to autoimmune inflammatory conditions, among other factors. Moreover, a significant increase in eye pressure can also cause the eye, especially around the iris, to appear red. This scenario is rarer and is typically related to a type of glaucoma known as narrow-angle glaucoma. 

Such conditions, although they may resemble standard pink eye, require different treatments than those used for typical eye infections. Without proper treatment, these conditions can deteriorate and potentially jeopardize your vision. Therefore, it's essential to see your eye doctor quickly if you display symptoms that could indicate pink eye. 

How Long Does Pink Eye Usually Last?

The duration of pink eye symptoms can differ depending on the individual case. However, most people with conjunctivitis typically see an improvement within ten to fourteen days. During this time, it's vital to be aware of the risk of transmitting the infection to others, particularly through direct contact or by sharing personal items like towels or pillows. Seeking medical treatment can help alleviate symptoms more quickly and reduce the contagious period. Even with treatment, it's important to continue practices aimed at preventing the spread of the infection, such as regular hand washing and keeping your personal items, especially those used on your face, separate from those of others in your home. 

Why Seeing an Eye Doctor is Essential 

When you start to notice symptoms of pink eye, it's essential to consult an eye doctor as soon as possible. This allows for an accurate determination of what's causing your eye inflammation. Different types of inflammation necessitate different treatments, and the wrong approach can slow down recovery or even lead to lasting harm. An in-depth eye exam is key to diagnosing your specific condition and starting the right treatment promptly. 


At Nationwide Vision, we're committed to providing timely care. We strive to schedule same-day appointments for those showing pink eye symptoms whenever feasible. Many of our locations also have on-call hours, so we encourage you to contact us right away if you begin to experience symptoms. Prompt, correct treatment is vital for maintaining your eye health and comfort. 


If you're experiencing any signs of pink eye, don't delay in seeking help. Schedule an appointment with Nationwide Vision for personalized care and treatment plans suited to your needs. 

Allison Zimmer, OD

About Dr. Zimmer

Allison Zimmer, OD, is a primary care optometrist in Emporia, KS at The EyeDoctors Optometrists eye care center. Dr. Zimmer specializes in specialty contact lenses, dry eye, cataracts, and more.