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What Is Commonly Misdiagnosed As Pink Eye?

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A young man with red eyes holding tissues and rubbing his eye in pain.

Visible redness, watery eyes, inflammation—that sounds like pink eye. This eye condition is more common than people think and can be caused by several different possible factors. However, the symptoms it causes are also similar to other eye conditions, so some people may self-diagnose pink eye incorrectly.

Conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye include dry eye, blepharitis, corneal abrasions, and even allergic reactions. This makes it essential to get a proper diagnosis from an optometrist so you can get proper treatment for your eye condition.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye, scientifically known as conjunctivitis, is a type of eye infection that affects the conjunctiva—the thin membrane on the outside of the eye and inside of the eyelid. It causes this membrane to become inflamed and irritated. Often, this condition is easily recognizable because of the visible red-pink colour it causes in the eye.

There are three types of conjunctivitis:

  • Viral conjunctivitis
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis
  • Allergic conjunctivitis

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye. It’s caused by a viral infection affecting and inflaming the conjunctiva. This is highly contagious, easily spreading from an infected individual or contaminated surface. It often causes watery eyes and and itchy feeling.

This type of pink eye usually clears up on its own within a week or two, but an optometrist may be able to speed up your recovery through proper treatment.

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

As the name suggests, bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by a bacterial infection. It’s also highly contagious.

It often appears similarly to viral conjunctivitis but may cause a yellow-green discharge around the eyes. Fortunately, this form of pink eye can be treated through antibiotics (usually in eye drop form) or a prescription ointment from an optometrist.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

When your body has an allergic reaction, plenty of systems go into overdrive trying to flush away the contaminant. And the eyes are no exception! Since your eyes can be extremely sensitive, an allergic reaction often easily irritates the surrounding area.

Fortunately, this type of pink eye isn’t contagious. It usually comes along with other standard allergy symptoms, like a scratchy throat, sneezing, or congestion. Allergic conjunctivitis can be effectively managed with over-the-counter antihistamines or prescription medications.

Signs & Symptoms of Pink Eye

The signs and symptoms of pink eye can vary depending on the type of infection you’re experiencing. However, the common symptoms often include:

  • Redness and inflammation of the eye
  • Watery or sticky discharge
  • Itching or burning sensation
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Gritty feeling in the eye
  • Swollen eyelids

There’s an important thing to note, though—several other eye conditions can develop while causing similar symptoms to pink eye. This makes it essential to get a proper diagnosis!

What Eye Conditions Look Like Pink Eye?

Because pink eye is often recognizable by the visible redness and watery eyes, other conditions can be mistakenly self-diagnosed as conjunctivitis. These conditions include:

  • Dry eye
  • Blepharitis
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Corneal abrasions

Dry Eye

If you’ve ever felt like your eyes are burning, or like your tears simply aren’t doing enough, it was likely dry eye. This condition is caused by a problem with your tear film—either there aren’t enough tears being produced, or the tears being produced aren’t able to do their job.

This leaves the eye vulnerable and exposed to the outside air. Fortunately, an optometrist can help treat your dry eyes with a range of dry eye therapies to help you find relief.


Blepharitis develops when there’s inflammation in the eyelids. It causes redness, swelling, and irritation, and often causes a minor crusty discharge around the edge of the eyelids. It often looks extremely similar to pink eye but is rarely contagious.

There are a few different types of blepharitis, each caused by unique factors. This makes it essential to see your optometrist if you notice any inflammation, irritation, or redness near your eyes—treatment varies depending on the cause of your symptoms.

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, can cause itchy, watery eyes—similar to allergic conjunctivitis. It’s also often accompanied by sneezing and congestion.

Unlike allergic conjunctivitis, though, allergic rhinitis often affects the nose and sinuses too. This can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication from an optometrist.

Corneal Abrasions

A corneal abrasion is a scratch on your eye’s surface that can cause redness, tears, and discomfort—similar to pink eye! However, it often comes along with other symptoms like blurred vision and sensitivity to light.

Unfortunately, this condition can be quite uncomfortable and may require prescription eye drops or ointments from an optometrist to help promote healing and alleviate discomfort. It’s essential to avoid rubbing your eyes at all costs, as this can make this condition much worse and cause it to take longer to heal.

How Is Pink Eye Treated?

The treatment for pink eye—and other conditions that appear similarly—depends greatly on the underlying cause.

How Is Viral Conjunctivitis Treated?

Typically, viral conjunctivitis goes away on its own without any specialty treatment. Instead, your optometrist will likely recommend:

  • Eye drops
  • Warm compresses to find temporary relief
  • Practicing proper eye hygiene

How Is Bacterial Conjunctivitis Treated?

Treatment for bacterial conjunctivitis aims to address the bacterial infection itself. Usually, your optometrist will recommend:

  • Prescription medication
  • Antibiotics (usually in the form of eye drops)
  • Proper eyelid hygiene
  • Warm compresses
  • Avoiding contact lenses, as they can spread bacteria

How Is Allergic Conjunctivitis Treated?

When treating allergic conjunctivitis, your optometrist will likely begin by asking about any known allergies. Then, they’ll likely recommend:

  • Avoiding allergens and triggers
  • Eye drops for temporary relief
  • Antihistamines
  • Cold compresses to reduce inflammation
  • Avoiding touching your eyes (this can transfer contaminants and allergens)
A woman in an optical clinic shaking hands with a male optometrist

Should You Visit an Optometrist if You Have Pink Eye?

If you think you have pink eye—or any other eye condition or problem—come visit our team here at Stoney Creek Optometry. Our team of caring and experienced professionals can give you a proper diagnosis for your eye condition and recommend appropriate treatment to help you manage your symptoms. You don’t deserve to suffer from the symptoms of pink eye, so request an appointment today with our team to find relief!

Written by Dr. Douglas Fernick

More Articles By Dr. Douglas Fernick

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