How to Choose Between Daily vs. Monthly Contacts

Understanding Pink Eye: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments Explained

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS 

Have you ever had one of those mornings where you wake up, stumble to the bathroom, and get greeted by a red, irritated eye staring back at you in the mirror? If you’ve ever experienced this, you’re not alone. Pink eye, or conjunctivitis as the experts call it, is a pretty common eye issue that can turn your typical day into a squinty, uncomfortable experience.  

But what exactly is pink eye? Is it something to worry about? How do you get it, and more importantly, how can you eliminate it? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about pink eye — from its sneaky causes to the best ways to say goodbye. 

What are the causes of pink eye?

Conjunctivitis can have many causes. Some of the most common are: 

  • Bacterial Infection: Often resulting from exposure to contaminated surfaces or direct contact, bacterial infections can lead to thick, often yellowish eye discharge. 

  • Viral Infection: Typically linked to common cold viruses, viral conjunctivitis usually causes watery, itchy eyes and can be highly contagious. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Triggered by allergens like pollen, pet dander, or certain chemicals, allergic conjunctivitis often presents with red, watery, and itchy eyes, usually accompanied by sneezing or nasal congestion. 

How do you get pink eye?

There are many ways to contract pink eye. Generally, bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by contact with bacteria, often on surfaces or people. This is especially common in small children due to their developing hygiene habits and tactile tendencies. However, this can also occur in adults, especially those who care for small children.   

Viral eye infections are often associated with exposure to common viruses like the cold or flu virus. Therefore, viral conjunctivitis is more common in people who have recently been sick from a virus or have been in close contact with someone sick. Allergies to something in your environment can also cause inflammation of the eye. This could be due to seasonal allergies or an allergy to a new product used around the eyes, such as makeup or soap.  

As you can see, there are many possible causes and types of pink eye; this is why it is essential to see your eye doctor or other medical professional as soon as possible if you have any symptoms of pink eye. 

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

So, you suspect you might have pink eye, but how can you be sure? Well, your eyes have a way of letting you know when something’s up. Here are some telltale signs to watch out for. Remember, pink eye can be a bit tricky– you might experience just one of these symptoms, a few of them, or even all at once. Let’s take a peek (pun intended!) at what your eyes might be trying to tell you:  

  • A red or pink appearance of the white part of one or both eyes   

  • Goopy discharge from one or both eyes   

  • Watering of one or both eyes  

  • Light sensitivity   

  • Ocular pain or irritation   

  • Blurred vision (You may experience only one of the symptoms above or a combination of multiple symptoms)   

What do I do if I wear contact lenses and I think I have pink eye?

For contact lens wearers, it is especially important to remove your contact lenses immediately when any symptoms of pink eye are noticed. Continuing to wear your contact lenses will allow an infection to grow and could cause permanent vision loss. Even a fresh pair of contact lenses is not safe to wear when you have ocular inflammation. Call your eye doctor immediately after removing your contact lenses to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.   

How can you tell the difference between viral and bacterial pink eye?

The best way to determine the cause of your pink eye is to see a medical professional immediately. However, there are certain symptoms which are more commonly associated with each of these conditions. Bacterial pink eye, or bacterial conjunctivitis, is usually accompanied by a goopy discharge from the eyes which may have a yellow or green appearance. Viral pink eye, or viral conjunctivitis, is typically associated with a clear discharge from the eyes similar to watering.   

Is pink eye always an eye infection?

No. At times, the anterior surfaces of the eye become red and inflamed due to causes other than a typical conjunctivitis or pink eye. For example, inflammation inside the eye can also cause a pink or red appearance of the eye if severe. This may be caused by an autoimmune inflammatory condition among other things. A sharp increase in eye pressure is another potential cause of a pink or red appearance of the eye, especially concentrated around the colored part of the eye. This is less common as it usually only occurs in people who have a certain type of glaucoma called narrow angle glaucoma.   

These masquerading conditions may seem like a simple case of pink eye, but require very different treatment than an eye infection. Furthermore, if not treated promptly, these conditions will worsen and potentially become vision threatening. This is another reason why it is important to see your eye doctor as soon as possible when the symptoms of pink eye appear. 

How long does pink eye last?

 Every case is different, but generally most cases of conjunctivitis last between ten to fourteen days. During this time, you should be careful about possible exposure to others in your household through close contact with the person affected or their personal items. Medical treatment of pink eye will help your symptoms subside quicker and reduce the contagious period, but you should still try to prevent the spread of this infection to others by washing your hands frequently and isolating items you use on your face from others. 

Do I need to see a doctor if I think I have pink eye?

Yes. It is very important to see your eye doctor when the signs of pink eye begin to determine the cause of your ocular inflammation as soon as possible. Different causes of eye inflammation must be treated very differently and the wrong treatment can delay healing or even cause lasting damage. With a proper ocular examination, your eye doctor can determine your diagnosis and start the appropriate treatment immediately.   

Our staff is trained to schedule appointments for patients with pink eye symptoms on the same day if possible. We also have on call hours at most of our locations, so please call our office right away if you are experiencing these symptoms. Prompt and correct treatment is important to make sure your eyes stay healthy.   

Experiencing symptoms of pink eye? We're here to assist. Schedule an appointment at The EyeDoctors to explore customized treatment options that suit your specific 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.