Sometimes it can be hard to tell eye conditions apart. That’s because there are several conditions that can cause eye symptoms like pain or discomfort, watering or redness.

But if you’re noticing that telltale pink color beginning on the white of your or your child’s eyeball, you’re thinking one thing: pink eye – and more specifically, conjunctivitis.

However, not all pinkness or redness means conjunctivitis. So it’s important to know what other pink eye symptoms to look for, and when to talk to a doctor about them.

Below, we cover contagious and noncontagious causes of pink eye, how those causes may affect pink eye symptoms and the importance of getting a diagnosis.

What is pink eye (conjunctivitis)? A form of inflammation

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is swelling and irritation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the clear layer of tissue that covers the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids.

How common is pink eye?

Pink eye is one of the most common eye conditions among kids and adults each year.

Different causes of pink eye

Conjunctivitis has a few different causes, including:

  • Viruses – Viruses are the most common cause of pink eye.
  • Bacteria – Bacteria are the second most common cause of pink eye generally.
  • Allergens or irritants – It’s also possible for non-infectious pink eye to result from an allergic reaction to things like seasonal allergens, or from irritants like chlorinated pool water or poor air quality.

In addition to the pink or red coloring of the eyes, conjunctivitis generally comes with a few other key symptoms. These can include:

  • Discomfort, itchy, gritty feeling or a burning sensation in the eyes
  • Watering or tearing eyes, which may blur your vision at times
  • White, gray or yellowish discharge from one or both eyes, which may form a crust during sleep
  • Mild sensitivity to light

Pink eye symptoms may vary slightly depending on the underlying cause, which we’ll talk more about below.

Viral pink eye symptoms

Viral pink eye is often caused by the same viruses that cause respiratory infections. Because of this, viral pink eye symptoms may come alongside symptoms of a cold or the flu, and often start in one eye before spreading to the other. Discomfort caused by viral pink eye tends to feel like a burning sensation, or like there’s sand in the eye. The eye discharge with viral pink eye is usually watery.

Bacterial pink eye symptoms

Similarly to viral pink eye, bacterial pink eye can be caused by bacteria that are responsible for other infections – staph infections and strep throat in particular. Bacterial pink eye usually causes less discomfort than viral, but it can cause eye soreness, and may have more pronounced symptoms like redness and discharge. Discharge is usually yellow or green, thick and sticky.

Allergic conjunctivitis symptoms

As the name implies, allergic conjunctivitis can occur as part of a wider allergic reaction – meaning that it may come with allergy symptoms like an itchy nose or throat, sneezing and watery mucus. Allergic conjunctivitis often causes intense itching and watering in both eyes at the same time and may cause the eyelids to swell.

Blocked tear ducts in newborns

In newborn babies, a blocked tear duct can often cause eye discharge that looks similar to that of an infection or conjunctivitis. But a blocked tear duct isn’t typically caused by an infection or conjunctivitis.

Is pink eye contagious?

Pink eye isn’t always contagious, but it is when it’s caused by a virus or bacteria. Because of this, getting an official diagnosis from a primary care doctor or clinician is important. They can tell you whether you can just focus on managing your symptoms, or if you also need to take steps to avoid spreading pink eye to others.

How viral and bacterial pink eye are spread

Viral pink eye is often contagious before symptoms appear and stays contagious for as long as symptoms are present. Bacterial pink eye is contagious once symptoms appear and stays contagious for as long as there’s discharge, unless you start a course of antibiotics for it, in which case it’s considered non-contagious after 24 hours.

Both types of pink eye can be spread through direct or indirect contact, meaning they can be spread by:

  • Being physically close to or touching someone with pink eye
  • Uncovered coughing or sneezing
  • Touching your eyes after touching surfaces or objects that someone with pink eye has touched

How long contagious pink eye lasts

Both viral and bacterial pink eye typically last for 5-7 days, but may take longer to go away completely.

How to prevent pink eye from spreading

Because of the ways that contagious pink eye spreads, the best method for preventing it is to practice good hygiene. This means:

  • Washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water
  • Changing towels, cloths and tissues after every use
  • Not sharing objects and cleaning any shared surfaces after use
  • Avoiding touching your eyes as much as possible, and washing your hands before and after if you have to

When to go to the doctor for pink eye symptoms

If you think you or your child have pink eye, getting a doctor’s diagnosis is the best next step. Many cases of pink eye get better on their own, and home remedies like compresses and eye drops are effective for managing symptoms. But depending on the pink eye type and severity, a care professional may recommend additional pink eye treatments.

Aside from getting an initial diagnosis, it’s important to see a doctor or clinician for pink eye if:

  • You have a lot of eye pain
  • Your eyes are very red or produce a lot of discharge
  • Your eyes are very sensitive to light
  • You have blurry vision
  • Your symptoms get worse or don’t improve over time
  • You wear contact lenses
  • You’re immunocompromised
  • You have swelling or redness around your eye

No matter the cause of your pink eye, a doctor can help. They can give you tips for preventing the spread of contagious pink eye, identify irritants or allergens, and manage your symptoms while you recover.