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What Is Commonly Misdiagnosed as Pink Eye?

A close-up image of a man's left eye showing signs of pink eye.

Pink eye is more common than most people think. It’s a highly contagious eye condition that can easily spread to others nearby if you aren’t careful. Often recognizable by redness, watery eyes, and itching sensations, pink eye can be an extremely frustrating experience. However, it’s important to note that this isn’t the only cause of redness around the eyes; plenty of different eye conditions can be mistaken for pink eye.

Some common conditions often misdiagnosed as pink eye include dry eye, uveitis, and blepharitis. The visible redness can also develop due to environmental factors like exposure to smoke, dust, or pollen and even a lack of sleep. If you ever notice redness in your eyes, visit your optometrist; don’t try to self-diagnose an infection.

What is Pink Eye?

Your eyes and eyelids are lined with an extremely thin membrane called the conjunctiva. It’s a clear tissue that covers the white part of your eye, helping to keep your eyes moist and protect them from irritants like dust, dirt, and other foreign particles.

Sometimes, this conjunctiva can become inflamed or infected. The tiny blood vessels inside start to swell, leading to a pink or red appearance. This can occur in one or both eyes. When this occurs, it’s called “conjunctivitis” or “pink eye.”

Types of Pink Eye

There are 3 types of pink eye:

  • Allergic
  • Bacterial
  • Viral

Each type has its own cause, symptoms, and treatment. It’s essential to learn how to recognize the difference between the 3 types since treatment isn’t universal, and it can be easy to mistake pink eye for something else. By learning about the different forms of the condition, you can take proactive measures to prevent it from spreading.

Allergic Pink Eye

Allergic pink eye develops when the immune system goes into overdrive to fight against an allergen. The blood vessels flare up, and your eye tries to expel the irritant. Allergic pink eye often appears alongside other allergy symptoms, like a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing.

This can eventually lead to:

  • Increased tear production
  • Itchiness in the eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light

There is good news here; allergic pink eye isn’t contagious. This can often be treated with antihistamines and over-the-counter allergy medication.

Bacterial Pink Eye

Sometimes, a bacterial infection causes pink eye to develop. The bacteria inflame the conjunctiva, leading to the tell-tale visible pinkness associated with the condition.

Bacterial pink eye can cause:

  • Yellow or greenish discharge from the eye
  • Crusting around the eyelids, especially after sleep
  • Redness and swelling
  • Possible ear or respiratory infections accompanying the eye symptoms

Unlike allergic pink eye, bacterial pink eye can be highly contagious. It often spreads through direct contact with an infected person or through contaminated surfaces.

It’s essential to seek prompt treatment if you think you have bacterial pink eye—it can swiftly spread to other people nearby. Allergic pink eye can be treated through antibiotics and will usually clear up within a week with proper treatment.

Viral Pink Eye

Viral pink eye occurs when a viral infection causes your symptoms to develop. This often appears darker than the other types of pink eye.

Viral pink eye can cause:

  • Watery discharge from the eye
  • Itchy or irritated eyes
  • Redness of the eye
  • Sensitivity to light

Viral pink eye is also highly contagious and can easily spread to others through coughing, sneezing, or any infected or contaminated surfaces.

It’s important to note that antibiotics can’t help with viral pink eye, as it’s not caused by a bacterial infection. Instead, treatment for viral pink eye usually focuses on relieving symptoms; the condition usually resolves itself within a week or two.

What Can Make Your Eyes Go Red?

Pink eye isn’t the only condition that causes red eyes. The human eye is a remarkably sensitive organ; the redness can be due to all kinds of common eye conditions.

An optometrist examining a female patient's eyes to diagnose the cause of her symptoms.

Other common causes of visible redness in the eyes include:

  • Dry eye, a condition that develops due to an imbalance in the tear film
  • Blepharitis, the inflammation in the eyelids due to bacterial spread
  • Broken blood vessels, often due to trauma
  • Uveitis, the inflammation of the middle layer of the eye
  • Overuse of contact lenses
  • Environmental factors, like exposure to dust, pollen, or smoke
  • A lack of sleep

Because this condition can be caused by so many potential factors, it’s crucial to visit an eye care professional if you notice redness or any other symptoms. They’ll be able to assess your eyes to determine what’s causing your symptoms.

When to See an Optometrist

If you’re dealing with anything unusual regarding your eyes or vision, talk to our team at Downtown Eye Care & The Contact Lens Department. We can diagnose your condition and help design a treatment plan so you can find relief. Don’t let conditions like pink eye disrupt your day; book an appointment with our team!

Dr. Neil Haney, Optometrist and Owner of Downtown Eye Care

Written by Dr. Neil Haney

Dr. Neil Haney spent his early years in Le Pas and Morden, Manitoba before attending high school in Winnipeg. He received his degrees in Biochemistry and Honours Biology from the University of Winnipeg in 2001. Dr. Haney then studied and worked at CancerCare Manitoba and the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology, where his research included the study of genetic malformations of the eye during early development.

Dr. Haney received his Doctor of Optometry degree from the University of Waterloo in 2008. He completed his ocular therapeutics externship at the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas, and gained clinical experience working at full-scope private practices in Calgary and Victoria prior to graduation.

He loves to travel and spent a year teaching English in Hiroshima, Japan. Dr. Haney plays recreational soccer throughout the year, so if you run into him at a Footy-Sevens game, be sure to say hi!

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