7 Clear Signs You Have Pink Eye

With some 3 million cases of pink eye in the United States each year, according to the National Eye Institute, it pays to know the signs of this very contagious infection.

Your eye is red or pink


As the nickname implies, pink eye often shows up as pinkness or redness in the eye, most commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection, which is spread similarly to the common cold. But there are other types of conjunctivitis that are not contagious, which develop as the result of allergies (allergic conjunctivitis), exposure to irritants (chemical conjunctivitis), or along with dry eye (secondary conjunctivitis). “A lot people think that pink eye is strictly an infection, like a bacterial infection, that they need antibiotics for, but the majority are caused by viruses,” says Michael Hanak, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at Rush University Medical Center. In cases of allergic conjunctivitis, red eyes may be accompanied by other allergy symptoms such as runny nose and sneezing. If you notice your eye is red or pink in color, it could be a sign of pink eye. Be sure to wash your hands after you touch your eyes so as no to spread the infection. (Related: These common hand-washing mistakes could be making you sick.)

Your eye is leaking fluid


Discharge from the eye can be associated with pink eye, which causes inflammation or infection of the mucous membrane that lines the surface of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelid, according to Kimbra A. Bell, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Viral conjunctivitis is typically associated with a clear or white discharge, while bacterial conjunctivitis is typically associated with a yellowish or puss-like discharge. Any unusual discharge from the eye could be a sign of pink eye. If you have viral conjunctivitis, which accounts for the majority of cases of pink eye, you won’t need antibiotic drops—in fact, they won’t help. Instead, alternate between pressing cool and warm compresses to the eye to reduce irritation and inflammation until the condition clears up on it’s own. Be sure to bone up on when you do—and don’t—need antibiotics.

Your eye feels crusty


When you have bacterial conjunctivitis, the body produces puss and mucus to help fight off the bacteria. That mucus can spread like a film over the eye that distorts your vision temporarily. “When you have the eye shut for prolonged periods of time, like overnight, mucous can build up,” explains Dr. Hanak. “As it’s exposed to air along the lining of your eyelid, it dries and almost creates a crust along each of your eyelashes.” Resist the urge to tug at your encrusted lashes because if you accidentally pull them out, you can create space for bacteria to enter and cause additional problems. Instead, use a warm washcloth to soften the crust off your eyelids and gently wipe it away. If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, see your doc for antibiotic eye drops. (Related: Check out these signs that the crusty eyes could be a sign of something more serious.)

Your eyes are more irritated than usual during allergy season

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Sure, rubbing itchy eyes will make them red and irritated. But if you have allergies and are experiencing serious irritation, redness, tearing, or itching in your eyes, it could be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis, which is not infectious or contagious and can be treated using allergy eye drops or oral allergy medications. “Allergic conjunctivitis does not typically present with discharge as the infectious conjunctivitis does, but more so with irritation, itching, and redness,” Dr. Bell says. Don’t miss these natural remedies that provide allergy relief!

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You have a cold and it’s affecting your eyes


If you’ve just come down with a seasonal bug and now your eyes are irritated, it could be a sign you have pink eye. “If you were coughing yesterday and then you touched your face or your eyes, you could have unintentionally spread the same pathogen that causes pink eye,” Dr. Hanak says. If you have chronic nasal congestion, this could be why.

Your eyes are really dry


Dry eye is a fairly common condition, but it’s also possible to get conjunctivitis secondary to dry eye after being exposed to the elements, including high wind and direct sun. It can also happen to people who lack sufficient tear production. “As a result of the dryness, the eye can get it can inflamed and irritated and become red,” says Dr. Bell. “Treatment is just a matter of extracting yourself from what the precipitating factor was.” These natural remedies for dry eye can keep you seeing clearly year-round.

You’ve been exposed to toxic air


Chemicals, fumes, or smoke getting into the eye can cause irritant conjunctivitis, a non-contagious form of the condition. Obviously try to avoid the source of the irritant, which should resolve this form of pink eye. In the meantime, Dr. Bell recommends using warm or cold compresses on the eye to manage symptoms. Pink eye clears up quickly and in some cases resolves in as little as 48 hours. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis usually takes up to 7 to 10 days to clear. For the best ways to care for your peepers, learn the eye health secrets doctors won’t tell you.

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