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What is Commonly Misdiagnosed as Pink Eye?

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Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a common condition that triggers inflammation, itching, discomfort, and redness in your conjunctiva—the thin membrane covering the inside of your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. 

Although uncomfortable, this condition is usually harmless and goes away without medical intervention. But it presents with symptoms similar to other conditions commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye, so a proper diagnosis from your eye doctor is important.

6 common ailments commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye include:

  • Allergies
  • Dry eye
  • Styes
  • Blepharitis
  • Corneal abrasions
  • Foreign objects in the eye


Allergies are one of the most common reasons you may have red or itchy eyes. Unlike pink eye, allergies are caused by a reaction to specific allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander. Allergies may also cause sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes. If you have a history of seasonal allergies or are experiencing other allergy symptoms, your eye redness and discomfort may indicate allergies rather than pink eye.

Dry Eye 

Dry eye occurs when you don’t produce enough tears or your tears evaporate too quickly to provide hydration and nourishment to your eyes. Unlike pink eye, which is characterized by redness and discharge, dry eye is more likely to cause stinging or burning and blurry vision.


A stye is a small bump that forms on the eyelid near the edge of the eye and is caused by an infection of an oil gland in the eyelid. Styes can cause redness, swelling, and tenderness, which can be mistaken for pink eye symptoms. However, styes don’t usually cause eye discharge or itching like pink eye does.


A close-up of a man with signs of Blepharitis on his left eye.

Blepharitis is caused by an inflammation of the eyelids, which can result in redness, itching, and swollen eyelids. This condition is often confused with pink eye, but it typically causes flaking of the eyebrows and eyelashes

While both conditions can cause similar symptoms—such as redness and irritation—the main difference lies in the area of inflammation. Blepharitis primarily affects the eyelids, while pink eye affects the conjunctiva.

Corneal Abrasion

A corneal abrasion is a scratch or injury on the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye. It can cause eye redness, pain, and sensitivity to light. 

However, corneal abrasions typically result from trauma to the eye’s surface, and the discomfort is often more severe than with pink eye. If you think you have a scratched cornea, call your optometrist immediately to prevent further damage.

Foreign Body in the Eye

If you get a foreign object, like an eyelash, in your eye, it can cause pain, redness, and tearing, which share symptoms with pink eye. However, unlike pink eye, a foreign body in the eye will feel like there’s something inside the eye and can be relieved by flushing the object out of the eye.

Different Types of Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis falls into 3 categories: allergic, infectious, and chemical

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis can cause redness, itching, and tearing of the eyes and is triggered by allergens like pollen, dust, or pet dander, and it’s not contagious. 

If you find yourself sneezing more often during certain seasons or notice your eyes getting worse in specific environments, you might be dealing with allergic conjunctivitis. 

Infectious Conjunctivitis

Infectious conjunctivitis is an eye infection caused by bacteria or viruses. Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are highly contagious and can be spread through direct contact with an infected person, contaminated objects, or airborne droplets.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is usually caused by Staphylococcus. It typically results in a thick, yellow, or greenish discharge from the eyes, and you might wake up with your eyes stuck together. Bacterial conjunctivitis can affect one or both eyes and is commonly accompanied by redness, swelling, and a gritty feeling.

Viral conjunctivitis is caused by viruses, often those that cause the common cold. It tends to produce a watery, clear, or slightly white discharge. Viral conjunctivitis also causes redness, itchiness, and sensitivity to light. Unlike bacterial conjunctivitis, however, it often affects one eye initially and then spreads to the other after a few days.

It’s essential to differentiate between the 2 because bacterial conjunctivitis may require antibiotics, while viral conjunctivitis typically resolves on its own within a few days to a week.

Chemical Conjunctivitis

Chemical conjunctivitis is often caused by irritants such as contaminants in the air, chlorine in swimming pools, and exposure to chemicals. 

The Right Diagnosis for Your Eye Health

While pink eye is a common eye condition, it’s not the only one that can cause redness, itching, and discomfort. If you are experiencing discomfort or redness in your eyes, give your eye doctor a call. Our team at Perspectives Vision Clinic can help provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Self-diagnosing and using over-the-counter treatments without proper evaluation can result in ineffective or inappropriate care. Identifying the specific cause of your symptoms can help speed up your recovery. Give us a call if you need help.


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  • Written by Dr. Marcie Nichols

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