Pink Eye Vs. Allergies: How To Tell The Difference?

Pink eye and allergies are two conditions that cause irritation and itching to the eyes, so how can you tell them apart, and can allergies cause pink eye?

Pink eye is a broad term used for irritation to the conjunctiva (a part of the eye), but there are many things that can cause this irritation, including allergies. However, pink eye and allergies are two different conditions, and there are some ways to distinguish between the two, which can be helpful when trying to treat and prevent them.

What Is Pink Eye?

Pink eye is the common name for conjunctivitis, which is when the conjunctiva, or the transparent membrane covering the inner eyelid and white part of the eyeball, becomes infected or inflamed.

How Does Pink Eye Differ from Allergies?

Pink eye is an overarching term for conjunctivitis, and this irritation can be due to a variety of causes.

When separating pink eye from allergies, things can get confusing since allergies may cause a form of conjunctivitis called allergic conjunctivitis. This is because allergies can cause the conjunctiva to become irritated and inflamed as a result of the immune response. If the allergen comes into contact with the eye, the immune system will attempt to remove the allergen, which can then cause the red and itchy eyes characteristic of allergies.

However, the term pink eye is used for a range of irritants to the eye, not just allergies. 

Pink Eye Vs. Allergies

Pink eye and allergies can both cause irritation and itching to the eye, but there are many differences between these two conditions, including cause and treatment.

Symptoms

Some symptoms that are common in those with pink eye include:

  • pink or red color in the white of the infected eye(s)
  • swelling of the eyelid
  • an urge to rub the eye
  • increased tear production
  • feeling like there is something in your eye
  • crusting of lashes or eyelids, especially after sleeping
  • discharge (mucus or pus)
  • irritation, itching, or burning

In comparison, if allergies are causing conjunctivitis, the irritated eyes are often accompanied by:

  • itching of the roof of the mouth or nose
  • sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • throat irritation
  • runny nose
  • dark circles under the eyes

Causes

Pink eye can result from a range of causes, including viruses, bacteria, chemicals, autoimmune conditions, or even allergies. However, it is most often used in reference to viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, which occur when a virus or bacteria spreads to the eye when touching your hands to your eye.

In comparison, allergies result from an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen, such as pollen or pet dander. They can lead to allergic conjunctivitis, which results from an allergic reaction to the conjunctiva, usually from touching or rubbing the eyes and introducing the allergen. However, not all allergies result in allergic conjunctivitis.

Based on these two causes, pink eye can be contagious, whereas allergies are not.

Treatment

Treatment for pink eye will depend on what is causing the irritation. For bacterial conjunctivitis, treatment may involve antibiotic eye drops to treat the infection. In comparison, viral conjunctivitis will often go away on its own within one to two weeks.

As the cause of pink eye dissipates, relief can be found by applying cold compresses and artificial tears, which can help to relieve some of the inflammation and dryness. This is especially helpful for viral conjunctivitis as it clears on its own.

When it comes to allergies, treatment can be found with antihistamines, which can be purchased over the counter or prescribed by a doctor. A doctor may also prescribe topical steroid eye drops in cases of allergic conjunctivitis.

Otherwise, allergies can be managed by avoiding or removing the allergy trigger. 

Prevention

Prevention of pink eye revolves around proper hygiene. For instance, it is important to wash your hands regularly, especially after using the restroom. It is also best to keep your hands away from your eyes, as that is how bacteria and viruses can be introduced to the conjunctiva.

It is also important to avoid sharing personal items, such as face clothes, towels, and makeup, among other products that come into contact with the eye or eyelid.

When preventing an allergic reaction, the biggest component is avoiding whatever you are allergic to. In cases where it is impossible to avoid the allergen entirely, try to limit exposure as much as possible.

Avoiding allergic reactions may involve limiting time outside for those with pollen allergies or keeping a low humidity in the home for those with dust mite or mold allergies.

How Can You Tell If It’s Pink Eye or Allergies? 

The biggest way to distinguish between pink eye and allergies is based on the symptoms present. For instance, both conditions cause a pink or itchy eye, but pink eye might cause crustiness on the eyelid or eyelashes after sleeping, while allergies typically do not.

However, an irritated eye in someone with allergies is often accompanied by other signs of allergies, such as a sore or itchy throat and sneezing.

When To See a Doctor

It is not always necessary to see a doctor about pink eye, although it is recommended to see a doctor if your symptoms are severe or don’t get better after a week. This may be an indication of bacterial conjunctivitis, which requires antibiotics.

It is important to see a doctor, though, if any of the following accompanies pink eye:

  • sensitivity to light
  • blurred vision
  • pain in the eye
  • intense redness
  • a weakened immune system

Allergies also do not require a visit to a doctor in many cases. However, it is crucial to seek immediate medical services if you begin to experience an allergic reaction that includes swelling in the face, throat, or mouth, difficulty breathing, a rash, or hives.

Get Help from An Online Doctor

If you have pink eye, meeting with an online doctor offers a convenient way to discuss your symptoms. The doctors on DrHouse can help you determine the cause of your pink eye and discuss treatment options. If they suspect a bacterial infection, they can prescribe antibiotics to help you feel better.

Online doctors, especially allergists, can also help those with allergies by prescribing antihistamines or other medications that can help relieve symptoms. 

Key Takeaways

Pink eye and allergies are two conditions that can cause irritated and itchy eyes. However, they have very different causes, and as such, their treatment differs.

Pink eye often refers to bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, but allergies can also cause allergic conjunctivitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with antibiotics, and allergies can be treated with antihistamines, but other forms of pink eye will go away on their own. There are also many steps you can take to prevent pink eye and allergies. 

If you have an irritated eye, the best way to distinguish between these two conditions is to consider your other symptoms, such as an itchy throat or eye mucus. If you are unsure if you have pink eye or allergies, an online doctor can help provide guidance.

Sources

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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