Red eyes aren't the only symptom—here, four other ways to know if you're dealing with this highly contagious condition.

By Cindy Kuzma
February 01, 2019

First, your eye feels scratchy or uncomfortable. Next, you might notice redness, swelling, or discharge. They all add up to what doctors call conjunctivitis—though most people know it by the everyday name pink eye.

This common condition occurs when the conjunctiva—the thin, smooth layer of tissue lining the surface of your eye and the inside of your lid—becomes irritated or infected. Most often, this occurs due to viruses or bacteria.

“Conjunctivitis is basically like getting the common cold for your eye,” says Gene Kim, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual science with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and a member of the Robert Cizik Eye Clinic.

Pink eye symptoms are usually mild, but in severe cases, your vision can be affected—and threatened. Simple cases can usually be treated at home with artificial tears and cold compresses, says Radha Ram, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist and adult strabismus surgeon with Texas Children’s Specialty Care in Austin. But in more severe cases, prescription eyedrops or medications may be required.

What are the symptoms of pink eye? Read on for more details. That way, you can tell whether conjunctivitis is the culprit for your eye problems—or your child’s—so you know the best way to handle it.

RELATED: How to Tell the Difference Between Pink Eye and Allergies

Irritation, burning, or itching

Is pink eye painful? Not necessarily. “The normal variety of nonaggressive pink eye doesn’t feel that bad,” Dr. Kim says. “It’s more annoying than it is painful.”

Of all the symptoms of conjunctivitis, discomfort is probably the most commonly reported, Dr. Ram says. Many people with pink eye describe a gritty sensation, as if there were sand or another foreign body in one or both eyes.

Sometimes, your eyes may feel as though they’re burning. You might also have trouble wearing your contact lenses—bumps that can form under the eyelid might make them feel uncomfortable or knock them out of place.

An itching sensation is more likely to occur with allergic conjunctivitis. This type of pink eye is caused by exposure to allergens like pet dander, pollen, or wildfire smoke, says Vivienne Hau, MD, an ophthalmologist with Kaiser Permanente.

RELATED: 7 Ways to Get Rid of Pink Eye

Redness

It’s called pink eye for a reason: The inflamed conjunctiva has more visible blood vessels, making the whites of the eye appear rosy or crimson.

Since newborns and infants can’t describe how their eyes feel, redness is often the first sign parents notice, Dr. Ram says. Babies are also prone to eyelid swelling and pus-like discharge. Conjunctivitis in newborns can be serious, so talk with your child’s doctor or a pediatric ophthalmologist right away if you spot these symptoms.

RELATED: 10 Surprising Conditions You Can Get In Your Eyes

Discharge

Your conjunctiva is made of the same type of smooth, mucus-producing tissue that lines your nose and mouth. Much the way your nose drips and your mouth waters, the inflamed tissue produces secretions that can range from watery (for most viral and allergic cases) to pus-like (usually linked to bacteria).

These emissions can sometimes cause lashes to stick together. “When patients have some discharge, that can form a crust during the night and may prevent the eye from opening in the morning,” Dr. Ram says.

Watery or thick discharge may also blur your vision. However, if you have changes to your sight that don’t resolve when you rinse out your eyes with artificial tears, that’s a sign of a more serious case of pink eye. In those instances, seek medical attention, Dr. Kim says.

RELATED: 9 Reasons Your Eyes Are So Watery–and What to Do About It

Swelling

The conjunctiva itself may appear puffy, and your eyelids can also swell, Dr. Ram says. You may also notice lumpiness in the lymph nodes around your ears. That’s a sign that, in the case of bacterial or viral pink eye, your body is working hard to battle invaders.

Sensitivity to light and blurry vision

Most run-of-the-mill cases of pink eye don’t affect your eyesight, Dr. Kim says. But more severe cases can cause scarring on the cornea that may permanently alter your vision. Signs of pink eye that are more serious, including blurriness and an inability to tolerate bright light, mean the infection may have spread beyond the conjunctiva.

These pink eye symptoms warrant a doctor’s visit, Dr. Kim says. Antiviral medications or antibiotic eyedrops or ointments can treat the condition and prevent long-term complications. You should also see a doctor if you have conjunctivitis symptoms and a condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV or cancer.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter