Pink Eye or Allergies?

Dr. Russel Lazarus, February 6, 2021

Do you find that you sometimes struggle to open your eyes due to severe eye discomfort?

Eye allergy symptoms can sometimes mimic an eye infection, making it difficult to know whether a trip to the eye doctor is warranted or not.

This page will discuss the differences between an eye allergy and conjunctivitis, though it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care. 

What is conjunctivitis?

Infectious conjunctivitis, commonly known as ‘pink eye’, is one of the most common eye infections.

When blood vessels in the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers your eye, become infected by a virus or bacteria, an infection can develop.

Common pink eye symptoms:

  • Pink or red eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Excessive tearing
  • Increased tear production
  • Thick yellow discharge
  • Crust in eye corner
  • Foreign body sensation

Different types of conjunctivitis

There are two different types of infectious conjunctivitis: Bacterial and viral.

1) Bacterial conjunctivitis is a highly contagious, bacterial eye infection that can affect one or both eyes. In many cases, it starts out in one eye and then spreads to the other eye.

Bacterial conjunctivitis affects around 135 in 10,000 Americans annually.

Common symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis include:

  • Pink or red eyes
  • Crust in eyelid corners
  • Yellow or green discharge
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Eyelids that are stuck together upon waking

If your child has bacterial conjunctivitis, an antibiotic eye drop, ointment, or oral medication will be prescribed to eliminate the bacteria.

Symptoms should subside within a couple of days after treatment, but your child could still be contagious for up to two weeks.

2) Viral conjunctivitis (pink eye) is a highly contagious, viral eye infection that generally affects both eyes, and often accompanies a cold, sore throat, or fever.

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common form of pink eye.

Common symptoms of viral conjunctivitis include:

  • Pink eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Watery discharge

If your child has viral conjunctivitis, symptoms usually subside within a week to 10 days.

Although there is no medication to treat viral pink eye, you can help to relieve uncomfortable symptoms by applying warm or cold wet compresses to your child’s eyes. Artificial tears eye drops may also help to alleviate some of the discomfort.

If you suspect your child has an eye infection, contact an eye doctor near you who can diagnose and treat the condition.

SEE RELATED: Children’s Eye Emergencies

Find an eye doctor for children near you

What is allergic conjunctivitis?

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the body overreacts to something in its environment and the conjunctiva becomes inflamed and irritated.

Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC) is the most common type of eye allergy.

Common symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis

Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis can be experienced in spring, summer, or fall and present with a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, and other typical hay fever symptoms.

Eye symptoms may include:

  • Red eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Sore eyes
  • Watery discharge
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to bright lights

Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious and can be treated quickly with appropriate treatment.

To treat eye allergies, your eye doctor may recommend an over-the-counter antihistamine eye drop or oral medication. In some cases, anti-inflammatory eye drops will be prescribed to reduce swelling and provide further relief of your symptoms.

Symptoms of infectious conjunctivitis and allergic conjunctivitis are very similar, and can be difficult to diagnose without visiting your eye doctor or primary care physician. 

LEARN MORE: Guide to Pediatric Eye Conditions

If your child’s eyes are pink, itchy, irritated or swollen, schedule an eye exam  as soon as possible.

With a proper diagnosis and effective treatment plan, your child will soon begin to feel like themselves again.