Is it Pink Eye or Allergies?

While their causes are different, allergies related to the eye often have many of the same presenting symptoms as pink eye. For this reason, it can be very difficult to tell them apart. This is because at their core, all are a type of inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin lining that covers the eyeball and the inside of the eyelid.

Although most of the signs and symptoms overlap, there are subtle differences that are key to identifying whether the conjunctivitis is caused by allergies or something more. The treatment varies depending on the cause, so it is important to be able to identify which type is at work. Let’s take a look into the different types.


Allergic Conjunctivitis:

This type of conjunctivitis is caused by patient allergies to environmental irritants such as dust, pet dander, weed and tree pollen, or molds. The eyes (usually both at the same time) may become red and itchy and will often burn. In combination with this, the patient often has other presenting allergy symptoms such as a runny nose or a notable increase in sneezing. A visit to the doctor for this type of conjunctivitis may result in a look underneath the eyelids to check for the presentation of papillae, small raised bumps that are indicative of allergies.

Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious and there is no immediate cure for it. To minimize symptoms and discomfort, the patient can take an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Zyrtec or Allegra. Also, it’s a good idea for this patient to have allergy skin testing so that they can identify the cause of their irritation and do their best to avoid it in the future.


Bacterial Conjunctivitis:

This type of inflammation is one form of pink eye and is less common than its viral counterpart. Commonly affecting only one eye at a time, bacterial conjunctivitis often presents with crusty yellow or green discharge that can cause the eyes to stick together after sleep. While the eye is usually very red, it is rarely itchy.

To treat this, doctors resort to antibiotics in the form of ointment or eye drops. If the infection is bad enough, oral antibiotics will also be prescribed to prevent the spread of the infection into the tear ducts. This type of infection is contagious and diligent hand-washing should be implemented until the symptoms are completely gone.


Viral Conjunctivitis:

This second form of pink eye is both extremely common and highly contagious. It is very hard to keep this infection from spreading from person to person as it’s transmitted as easily as a cold. In fact, this type of conjunctivitis is generally seen in combination with a cold and its accompanying symptoms. As far as the eyes, they will be red with discharge that is thin and watery in comparison to the crusty and purulent discharge that comes with a bacterial infection. It usually begins in one eye but easily travels to the other eye if it is accidently touched.

Typically there is no treatment for this type of pink eye aside from easing discomfort (i.e. applying a cold compress and artificial tears) and implementing frequent hand-washing to prevent it from spreading. It usually goes away within 1-2 weeks on its own. However, if the patient is rubbing the eye, bacteria can easily be introduced, causing the development of bacterial conjunctivitis that requires the use of an antibiotic.

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