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What is Pink Eye? The Comprehensive Guide to Conjunctivitis

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS

Have you ever been greeted by a red, irritated eye in the mirror first thing in the morning? You're definitely not alone in this experience. Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a common condition that can disrupt an ordinary day with discomfort and a need to squint.

But what exactly is pink eye? Is it a cause for concern? Understanding its causes and, more importantly, how to effectively treat it, is essential. Don't worry – we're here to guide you. In this article, we'll explore everything about pink eye, from its elusive causes to the most effective treatment methods. 

Unraveling the Causes of Pink Eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, has various origins, with several causes being more common: 

  • Bacterial Infection: This type results from contact with bacteria, often found on surfaces or through direct contact, leading to a thick, sometimes yellowish discharge from the eyes. 

  • Viral Infection: Commonly associated with viruses that cause the common cold, viral conjunctivitis is known for watery, itchy eyes and high contagiousness. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Triggered by allergens such as pollen, pet dander, or chemicals, allergic conjunctivitis typically causes red, watery, itchy eyes, often accompanied by sneezing or nasal congestion. 

How Pink Eye Spreads

Pink eye can be contracted in various ways. Bacterial conjunctivitis is often spread through contact with bacteria on surfaces or via person-to-person contact. It's particularly common in young children who are still developing hygiene habits. Adults, especially those who care for young children, are also at risk. 

Viral conjunctivitis is usually related to common viruses like the cold or flu. It's more common in those who have recently been sick or in close contact with someone who is. Allergic reactions to environmental elements can also cause eye inflammation, either from seasonal allergies or reactions to new eye products like makeup or soap. 

It's important to see an eye care professional as soon as you notice any symptoms of pink eye, due to the various ways it can be contracted. 

Spotting the Symptoms of Pink Eye

Suspecting pink eye? Your eyes will usually show signs. Here are the symptoms to watch for, remembering that pink eye can vary – you might experience just one symptom, several, or all of them: 

  • Redness or a pink tint in one or both eyes   

  • Sticky discharge from one or both eyes  

  • Increased tearing  

  • Sensitivity to light  

  • Discomfort or pain in the eyes  

  • Blurred vision   

Advice for Contact Lens Wearers with Pink Eye

If you wear contact lenses and suspect pink eye, take immediate action. Remove your lenses as soon as symptoms appear. Continuing to wear them can worsen an infection and lead to permanent vision damage. It's not safe to wear even a new pair of contact lenses if you have eye inflammation. After removing your lenses, promptly contact your eye doctor for an appointment. Quick action is crucial for stopping the infection and protecting your eyesight. 

Differentiating Between Viral and Bacterial Pink Eye

The best way to determine the cause of pink eye is through a professional diagnosis. However, symptoms can offer clues. Bacterial pink eye usually involves a thick, yellow or green discharge, while viral pink eye typically features a clear, watery discharge. While these symptoms can guide you, a definitive diagnosis should be made by an eye care professional. 

Recognizing When Pink Eye is More Than an Infection

Not all cases of red, inflamed eyes are pink eye infections. Sometimes, other issues like severe internal eye inflammation or a significant increase in eye pressure can cause redness, the latter often related to narrow-angle glaucoma. These conditions require different treatments than standard pink eye and, if left untreated, can worsen and threaten vision. This is why it's crucial to visit your eye doctor immediately if you experience symptoms of pink eye. 

Typical Duration of Pink Eye

The duration of pink eye varies, but most cases resolve within ten to fourteen days. During this time, take care to prevent the spread of the infection through close contact or sharing personal items. Medical treatment can shorten the duration and lessen symptoms, but it's still important to practice good hygiene and keep personal items separate. 

Importance of Seeing an Eye Doctor for Pink Eye

Seeing an eye doctor at the first sign of pink eye is vital. Different types of eye inflammation require different treatments, and a misdiagnosis can prolong recovery or cause permanent damage. A comprehensive eye exam will diagnose your condition and start the right treatment.   

At Grene Vision Group, we aim for same-day appointments for pink eye symptoms when possible. Many of our locations offer on-call hours, so contact us immediately if you notice symptoms. Timely and proper treatment is key to maintaining your eye health. 


If you're showing signs of pink eye, find a location near you and reach out to us. Schedule an appointment with Grene Vision Group for personalized care and treatment plans tailored 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.