How Do I Know if I Have Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)?

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether you have pink eye. If you have itchy, red eyes, it might be dry eye, irritation due to a foreign object, conjunctivitis or something else.

Luckily, pink eye, or conjunctivitis as it’s known in the medical community, has some distinctive features setting it apart. If you think you have conjunctivitis, you shouldn’t wait until your next eye exam to deal with it. Because of the discomfort caused and the threat to your eye health, you should think of pink eye as an eye health emergency. In that case, seek an eye doctor, a general practice physician, or emergency medical care.


Pink eye and conjunctivitis aren’t always the same thing, but there is so much overlap, it’s convenient to think of it that way. Pink eye is a type of conjunctivitis, so all pink eye is conjunctivitis, but not all conjunctivitis is pink eye. Nevertheless, sometimes the two terms get used interchangeably, so confusion is understandable.

What many of us consider to be characteristic of pink eye is a bacterial or viral infection, and both are called infectious pink eye. The other type is allergic conjunctivitis, and many people refer to it simply as “allergies.”


What we call pink eye tends to show as a collection of symptoms including:

  • Redness 

  • Itchiness 

  • Gritty feeling 

  • Discharge, forming a crust overnight, sealing your eyes shut by morning

  • Watery eyes

These symptoms can affect one or both eyes.


It’s the mucous-based discharge coming from the eye that becomes the most telling sign, and it requires you to act fast with the help of a doctor. It’s evidence your eye has become host to a virus or some bacteria. But these 2 types differ in their treatment, so a correct diagnosis matters. It’s also essential to get treatment fast because of the contagiousness of infectious pink eye; you wouldn’t want to spread it to your coworkers or loved ones, or even strangers.


This type makes your eyes very red and produces a sticky yellow-green discharge. It’s the same virus causing the sore throat and runny nose of a cold, but specific to the eyes. There’s no treatment for a virus like this, unfortunately. Just like a cold, you have to wait it out, around a week or so.


Bacterial pink eye usually produces more mucous or pus than viral pink eye. The color can vary based on the strain of bacteria. With this type of pink eye, antibiotics might be needed to destroy the invasive bacterial colony settling in your eye. Waiting it out as with viral pink eye won’t help, because the infection gains momentum over time.

While you need antibiotics to rid yourself of the infection, you can use some home remedies to manage the symptoms and their intensity as well:

  • Take ibuprofen or another over-the-counter pain killer.

  • Use over-the-counter lubricating eye drops (artificial tears).

  • Put a warm, damp washcloth over your eyes for a few minutes.

    • To make a compress for your eyes, soak a clean washcloth in warm water, then wring it out, so it’s not dripping.

    • Lay the damp cloth over your eyes and leave it in place until it cools.

    • You can repeat this several times a day, or as often as is comfortable.

    • Use a clean washcloth each time, so you don’t spread the infection.

    • If you have infectious pink eye in both eyes, use a different washcloth for each eye.

Infectious pink eye can be due to substantial and close enough contact with germs to cause a bacterial or viral infection. Still, it can have other triggers and causes, including allergies. 

Contact lenses are likely to complicate matters when it comes to infectious pink eye, so it’s best to clear their use with your optometrist via emergency eye care. If your optometrist is not available or the symptoms are advanced, a walk-in clinic doctor or one performing emergency medical care can comment on whether contacts are okay as well.


This type of conjunctivitis isn’t contagious, and your eyes can appear very red. Your eyes tend to be more watery than thick with mucous when suffering from this kind of conjunctivitis. That, and your eyelids may also get puffy.

With this type of conjunctivitis, your eyes aren’t fighting off germs trying to make a home in your body. The irritation has more to do with how your cells react to chemical compounds in airborne irritants like pollen and dander than your immune system’s defensive action against germs — so the treatment is much different.


Pink eye isn’t the only irritation and redness you can get in your eye. You might mistake it for the following if you don’t know what to look for. Some of these are eye emergencies, however.


A foreign object can get lodged in your eye, and the effect is usually redness, pain, and excessive tear production. This situation can quickly become an emergency because it can scrape your cornea, which can ultimately blur your vision, the more scratches build up.

Luckily, foreign objects can often be felt with the eyelids. The onset of these symptoms is usually much quicker than the onset with infectious pink eye.

The best thing to do if you feel a foreign object is to flush your eye with cold water for several minutes. Try not to rub your eyes vigorously, since that can further the damage. Keep flushing and blinking, and you might be able to wash it out. Take it as an eye emergency if not, and see a doctor (or eye doctor).


Your eyes might undergo exposure to household or industrial chemicals at home or at work, so you have to be careful. Workplaces often have workplace hazardous materials datasheets to help you avoid the danger, and household cleaners also prominently display warning signs. However, it’s still possible to get harmful chemicals in your eye. You might notice excessive watering of your eye, pain, and a lot of redness given contact with chemicals.

When using chemicals of any kind, you’ll want to make sure you have personal protective equipment available, and please read up on the safety protocols. Corrosive chemicals exposure often call for flushing your eyes for several minutes with cool water. It counts as an eye emergency, so contact an optometrist performing emergency eye care or an emergency room quickly after following recommended safety steps.


Dry eye can have many causes. The characteristic redness, discomfort, itchiness, and tear film imbalance could be mistaken for pink eye by some. But the treatment of various types of dry eye and pink eye differ wildly. Quick onset of dry eye may count as an eye emergency. Still, your optometrist can effectively distinguish dry eye from pink eye.


You never know whether redness, excessive tearing up or, or irritation are getting worse, so it’s best to sort it out quickly. Your optometrist can tell you not only whether it’s pink eye. But they can tell whether you need antibiotics for bacterial infections or some bed rest for viral infections.

If you think you might have an eye emergency on your hands, please contact us immediately at (855) 491-2052 for Chevy Chase, Maryland or (844) 624-0610 for Washington, DC. You could also add these numbers to your contact list, so you’re able to dial with voice activation. If we hear from you in an emergency, we will always do our best to help urgently.

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