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What is Pink Eye? Understanding Conjunctivitis Causes & Treatments

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD 

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS 

Ever woken up to find a red, inflamed eye looking at you from the mirror? You're certainly in good company. Pink eye, known medically as conjunctivitis, is a widespread eye condition that can transform an average day into one filled with discomfort and constant squinting. 

So, what is pink eye, exactly? Should it be a cause for concern? Understanding how it occurs and, more importantly, how to treat it, is essential. No need to fret – we're here to help. In this article, we'll delve deep into the world of pink eye, exploring everything from its crafty causes to the most effective farewell strategies. 

Understanding the Causes of Pink Eye

The origins of conjunctivitis are varied, with several common culprits: 

  • Bacterial Infection: This type often arises from touching contaminated surfaces or through person-to-person contact, leading to a dense, sometimes yellowish discharge from the eyes. 

  • Viral Infection: Typically associated with viruses like those causing the common cold, viral conjunctivitis typically results in watery, itchy eyes and is notably contagious. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Triggered by allergens such as pollen, animal dander, or specific chemicals, this form of conjunctivitis usually manifests as red, watery, and itchy eyes, and is often accompanied by symptoms like sneezing or a stuffy nose. 

How Pink Eye is Transmitted

Pink eye can be contracted through various means. Bacterial conjunctivitis often comes from encountering bacteria, which can be present on different surfaces or transferred through human contact. It's particularly common among young children who are still learning proper hygiene and are naturally more tactile. However, adults, especially those who interact with or care for young children, are also susceptible. 

Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand, is usually linked to common viral infections like the cold or flu. It tends to be more prevalent among individuals who have recently suffered from a viral illness or have been in proximity to someone who is ill. Additionally, allergic reactions to environmental factors can cause eye inflammation. This might be the result of seasonal allergies or a reaction to new products applied near the eyes, such as makeup or soap. 

Given the variety of ways pink eye can be contracted, it's crucial to consult an eye doctor or healthcare professional promptly if you exhibit any symptoms of the condition. 

Identifying Symptoms of Pink Eye

Wondering if you might have pink eye? Your eyes are usually the first to signal there's an issue. Here's a list of key indicators to look out for. Keep in mind that pink eye can be deceptive – you may encounter just one, a few, or all these symptoms simultaneously. Let's examine what signs your eyes could be showing: 

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

  • Sticky discharge from one or both eyes  

  • Excessive tearing in one or both eyes  

  • Light sensitivity   

  • Discomfort or pain in the eyes  

  • Blurry vision   

Guidance for Contact Lens Wearers with Pink Eye

If you wear contact lenses and suspect you have pink eye, it's crucial to take immediate action. Remove your contact lenses as soon as you notice any symptoms. Continuing to wear them can exacerbate an infection and potentially lead to irreversible damage to your vision. It's important to note that even a new pair of contact lenses should not be worn if you're experiencing eye inflammation. Once you've removed your lenses, contact your eye doctor right away to arrange an appointment. Prompt attention is key in preventing the progression of the infection and safeguarding your vision.   

Distinguishing Between Viral and Bacterial Pink Eye

Identifying the exact cause of your pink eye is best done by consulting a medical professional promptly. However, you can often distinguish between the types based on specific symptoms. Bacterial pink eye, or bacterial conjunctivitis, typically presents with a thick discharge from the eyes, which can appear yellow or green. In contrast, viral pink eye, or viral conjunctivitis, usually involves a clear, watery discharge, much like tears. Understanding these differences can provide insights into the nature of your pink eye, but an eye care professional should always make a definitive diagnosis. 

Pink Eye is Not Always an Infection

Pink eye isn't always synonymous with an eye infection. Sometimes, redness and inflammation on the eye's front surface stem from other causes besides standard conjunctivitis. For instance, severe internal eye inflammation can result in a pink or red appearance, which might be due to autoimmune inflammatory conditions, among other reasons. Additionally, a notable increase in eye pressure can lead to redness, particularly around the iris, which is less common and often associated with a specific type of glaucoma known as narrow-angle glaucoma. 

These conditions, which might initially look like ordinary pink eye, demand different treatment approaches than a typical eye infection. Left untreated, they can worsen and even risk your vision. This is why it's imperative to consult your eye doctor promptly when you experience symptoms indicative of pink eye.

Duration of Pink Eye Symptoms

The length of time pink eye lasts can vary from case to case, but typically, most instances of conjunctivitis resolve within ten to fourteen days. Throughout this period, it's important to be mindful of potentially exposing others, especially through close contact or sharing personal items with the affected individual. Receiving medical treatment for pink eye can accelerate the improvement of symptoms and shorten your affected days. Nonetheless, it's still crucial to take measures to prevent spreading the infection, such as frequent hand washing and keeping personal face items, like towels and pillows, separate from others in your household. 

Consulting a Doctor for Pink Eye

Consulting your eye doctor at the first signs of pink eye is crucial to promptly determine the cause of your eye inflammation. Different types of eye inflammation require distinct treatments, and inappropriate treatment can hinder the healing process or even cause permanent damage. A thorough eye examination by your eye doctor is essential to accurately diagnose your condition and begin the correct treatment without delay. 


Our team is adept at arranging same-day appointments for patients exhibiting symptoms of pink eye, whenever possible. We also offer on-call hours at most of our locations, so it's important to contact our office immediately if you notice symptoms. Receiving timely and appropriate treatment is key to ensuring the health and well-being of your eyes. 


If you're experiencing symptoms of pink eye, don't hesitate to reach out. Book an appointment with eyecarecenter for tailored treatment options that are right for you. 

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.