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What is Pink Eye? Understanding Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Written by Dr. Allison Zimmer, OD

Associate Optometrist at The EyeDoctors in Topeka, KS

Have you ever woken up to find a red, irritated eye looking back at you in the mirror? You're certainly not alone. Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as "pink eye," is a frequent eye issue that can make your day uncomfortable and filled with squinting. 

But what really is pink eye? Is it a cause for concern? Knowing how you contract it and how to effectively treat it is important. Rest assured, we're here to guide you. In this piece, we'll delve into everything about pink eye, from its elusive causes to the most effective remedies. 

What Causes Pink Eye?

Conjunctivitis can stem from a variety of sources. Some prevalent causes include: 

  • Bacterial Infection: This arises from contact with bacteria-laden surfaces or direct human contact, leading to a thick, occasionally yellowish eye discharge. 

  • Viral Infection: Commonly related to cold or flu viruses, viral conjunctivitis tends to cause watery, itchy eyes and is highly contagious. 

  • Allergic Reaction: Allergens like pollen, animal dander, or certain chemicals can induce allergic conjunctivitis, manifesting as red, watery, itchy eyes, often with sneezing or a runny nose. 

How Does Pink Eye Spread?

 There are various ways to contract pink eye. Bacterial conjunctivitis is often a result of bacterial contact, which is particularly prevalent among young children due to their developing hygiene practices. Adults, especially those in close contact with children, are also susceptible. 

Viral conjunctivitis is typically linked to common viral infections like colds or flu, and it's more common in those who've been recently ill or in close contact with someone who is. Allergic reactions to environmental triggers can also cause eye inflammation, stemming from either seasonal allergies or reactions to new eye-near products like makeup or soap. 

It's essential to see a healthcare provider at the first sign of any pink eye symptoms, due to the various causes and types of the condition. 

What are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

If you suspect pink eye, your eyes will likely show certain signs. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and you might experience one or many of them. Here's what to look out for: 

  • Red or pink discoloration in one or both eyes 

  • Sticky discharge from the eyes 

  • Increased tearing 

  • Sensitivity to light 

  • Eye discomfort or pain 

  • Blurry vision 

What if I Wear Contacts?

 For contact lens users, it's vital to remove your lenses as soon as you notice any pink eye symptoms. Continuing to wear them can aggravate an infection and even lead to irreversible vision damage. Understand that even new contact lenses are not safe to use during an episode of eye inflammation. Contact your eye doctor right away to schedule an appointment as soon as you remove your lenses, to avoid further eye health issues. 

Viral vs. Bacterial Pink Eye

While a professional diagnosis is always recommended for pink eye, different types tend to exhibit distinct symptoms. Bacterial conjunctivitis is often marked by a sticky, yellow or green discharge, whereas viral conjunctivitis is usually characterized by a clear, watery discharge. 

Does Pink Eye Always Signal an Eye Infection?

Pink eye doesn't always indicate an infection. Sometimes, redness and inflammation are due to other factors, like internal eye inflammation or a sudden increase in eye pressure, which may be related to narrow-angle glaucoma. These conditions can mimic pink eye but require different treatments and can worsen or threaten vision if not promptly addressed. 

How Long Does Pink Eye Last?

Typically, pink eye lasts about 10 to 14 days. It's important to limit exposure to others during this time to prevent spreading the infection. Medical treatment can reduce symptoms and contagiousness, but good hygiene and separating personal items remain key to controlling spread. 

Seeking Professional Care for Pink Eye Treatment

Promptly visiting an eye doctor when pink eye symptoms appear is crucial for correctly diagnosing and treating the condition. Misdiagnosis can delay healing and cause lasting damage. An eye exam will help your doctor determine the best course of treatment.   

Our staff is adept at arranging same-day appointments for patients with pink eye symptoms. With on-call hours at many of our locations, we urge you to contact us immediately if you're experiencing symptoms. Timely and correct treatment is critical for maintaining eye health. 


If you're showing signs of pink eye, don't delay. Reach out to schedule an appointment with EyeCare Associates for specialized treatment options tailored to 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.