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What is Pink Eye? Causes, Symptoms, and When to Seek Medical Treatment

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD 

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS 

Ever had a morning where you wake up, head to the bathroom, and find yourself facing a red, irritated eye in the mirror? You're not alone if you've encountered this. Known as conjunctivitis or “pink eye,” this common eye condition can turn an ordinary day into one filled with discomfort and squinting.

So, what exactly is pink eye? Should you be concerned? Understanding how you get it and how to get rid of it is vital. Fear not, we have you covered. In this article, we will explore the nuances of pink eye - uncovering its hidden causes and the most effective ways to bid it farewell. 

Causes of Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis arises from various sources. Some of the most common causes of pink eye are: 

  • Bacterial Infection: This can occur through contact with contaminated objects or direct touch, leading to a thick, sometimes yellowish discharge from the eyes. 

  • Viral Infection: Often associated with the viruses that cause the common cold, this type of conjunctivitis tends to result in watery, itchy eyes and is known for being particularly contagious. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Exposure to allergens such as pollen, pet fur, or specific chemicals can trigger allergic conjunctivitis. Symptoms typically include red, watery, and itchy eyes, and are often accompanied by sneezing or a stuffy nose. 

How Pink Eye is Contracted

Pink eye can be contracted in several ways. Bacterial conjunctivitis typically stems from contact with bacteria, often found on surfaces or transferred from person to person. This form is quite common in young children, who are still developing their hygiene skills and often touch everything. Adults, particularly those caring for young children, are also at risk. 

Viral conjunctivitis is frequently linked to exposure to common viruses, such as those causing colds or flu. It's more prevalent among individuals who have recently been ill with a virus or have been in close contact with someone who is sick. Additionally, allergic reactions to environmental elements can lead to eye inflammation. This may be a response to seasonal allergens or a reaction to new products used near the eyes, like makeup or soap. 

Given the various causes and types of pink eye, it's crucial to consult your eye doctor or a medical professional as soon as you notice any symptoms of pink eye. 

Pink Eye Symptoms

 If you think you might have pink eye, your eyes will often show signs. Pink eye symptoms can vary – you might have one, several, or all of them simultaneously. Let's take a closer look (yes, pun intended!) at what your eyes might be signaling: 

  • The white part of one or both eyes turning red or pink 

  • A sticky discharge from one or both eyes  

  • Increased tearing from one or both eyes  

  • Light sensitivity   

  • Discomfort or pain in the eyes 

  • Blurred vision 

Pink Eye and Contacts

For those who wear contact lenses, it's crucial to remove them immediately upon noticing any symptoms of pink eye. Continuing to wear contacts can exacerbate an infection and potentially lead to permanent vision loss. It's important to understand that even a new pair of contact lenses shouldn't be worn if you're experiencing eye inflammation. As soon as you remove your lenses, contact your eye doctor to schedule an appointment promptly. This step is essential for protecting your eye health and preventing further complications. 

The Difference Between Viral and Bacterial Pink Eye

To accurately identify the cause of your pink eye, consulting a medical professional promptly is the most reliable approach. However, each type of pink eye tends to have distinctive symptoms. Bacterial pink eye, or bacterial conjunctivitis, often comes with a sticky discharge from the eyes, which can appear yellow or green. On the other hand, viral pink eye, or viral conjunctivitis, is usually characterized by a clear, watery discharge from the eyes. 

Does Pink Eye Always Signal an Eye Infection?

Not necessarily. Sometimes, the redness and inflammation on the front surface of the eye are due to reasons other than typical conjunctivitis or pink eye. For instance, internal inflammation within the eye can also lead to its red or pink appearance, which might result from an autoimmune inflammatory condition, among other causes. Additionally, a significant rise in eye pressure can cause the eye, particularly around the iris, to look red or pink. This is less common and generally occurs in individuals with a specific type of glaucoma known as narrow-angle glaucoma. 

These conditions might mimic typical pink eye but necessitate entirely different treatments than those used for an eye infection. Moreover, without timely treatment, these issues can worsen and may even pose a threat to your vision. This underscores the importance of visiting your eye doctor promptly when pink eye symptoms emerge. 

Pink Eye Duration

While each case can vary, conjunctivitis typically lasts from ten to fourteen days. During this period, it's important to be cautious about potential exposure to others in your household, either through direct contact with the affected person or their personal belongings. Seeking medical treatment for pink eye can hasten the alleviation of symptoms and shorten the contagious phase. However, it's still crucial to minimize the risk of spreading the infection. This can be done by frequently washing your hands and keeping personal items like face towels separate from those used by others. 

When to See a Professional for Pink Eye Treatment

 It's crucial to visit your eye doctor as soon as you notice signs of pink eye to identify the cause of your eye inflammation. Different types of eye inflammation require distinct treatments, and incorrect treatment can lead to delayed healing or even permanent damage. Through a thorough eye examination, your eye doctor can diagnose your condition accurately and initiate the right treatment immediately. 


Our team prioritizes scheduling appointments for patients showing symptoms of pink eye, often on the same day. Many of our locations offer on-call hours, so we encourage you to contact our office immediately if you're experiencing these symptoms. Prompt and appropriate treatment is vital for maintaining the health of your eyes. 


If you're experiencing symptoms of pink eye, don't hesitate to reach out. Schedule an appointment with Clarkson Eyecare for personalized treatment options 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.