Itchy, oozy and bloodshot: Is it pink eye or something else?

Those telltale symptoms could be signs of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, or a response to allergies or irritants. Here's what to keep an eye out for.
“If there is yellow discharge, the conjunctivitis is bacterial and needs to be treated with an antibiotic,” said Dr. Ken Miller.
“If there is yellow discharge, the conjunctivitis is bacterial and needs to be treated with an antibiotic,” said Dr. Ken Miller. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Looking into the mirror and seeing that one of your eyes is bloodshot can be alarming. This condition, known as pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is not only unsightly — it can be highly contagious. Understanding pink eye and what causes it can help us avoid getting infected and spreading it to others.

What is pink eye?

Pink eye is an inflammation or infection of the membrane that lines the white part of your eye (called the conjunctiva).

Types of pink eye include:

  • Viral conjunctivitis
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis
  • Allergic conjunctivitis
  • Conjunctivitis from an irritant

Only the viral and bacterial types of conjunctivitis are contagious. Pink eye from allergies or irritants is not contagious.

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

When the conjunctiva membrane becomes infected, it turns pink or red. Other symptoms of pink eye may include eye watering, itchiness, discharge or crusting of the eyelids and lashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What causes pink eye?

Just like the common cold, pink eye can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Viral conjunctivitis can occur when you contract certain viruses, such as an adenovirus. Bacterial conjunctivitis can be triggered by staph or strep, or other bacterial infections. You can also get pink eye as a result of seasonal allergies.

Dr. Ken Miller, an ophthalmology specialist in West Orange, New Jersey, told TODAY that it's important to pay attention to whether any yellow discharge develops. “If there is yellow discharge, the conjunctivitis is bacterial and needs to be treated with an antibiotic.”

Parents, in particular, should be on the lookout for this yellow discharge if a child has pink eye. Dr. Steph Lee, a pediatrician in Reading, Pennsylvania, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children should see a pediatrician if they have this symptom — or if they need to wipe their eyes several times an hour. “If they have pain in their eyes or blurry vision, take them to their pediatrician immediately,” said Lee.

If the discharge is red or watery, however, the conjunctivitis is likely to be the result of a viral infection, therefore, it can’t be treated with antibiotics. “Basically, you just have to ride it out,” said Miller. In this situation, a warm compress can help soothe the infected eye (or eyes).

“Never underestimate the power of a warm compress,” said Lee. For viral conjunctivitis, she recommended applying a warm compress four to five times per day for about four to five minutes at a time to help bring down the swelling.

Conjunctivitis can also be caused by a basic irritant in the eye, like a loose eyelash, dust or a contaminant on a contact lens. A warm compress can be used to help ease symptoms with this type of pink eye too.

If you notice redness or other symptoms in your child's eye that might indicate a conjunctivitis infection, rinse their eyes with warm water before doing anything else, advised Dr. Lee. Then monitor any symptoms. If your child's pink eye symptoms last longer than a week, see a doctor or pediatrician.

How to prevent pink eye

Although pink eye is not usually dangerous and most cases resolve within a week, it can still cause a lot of discomfort, so it's best to try and avoid getting it. Conveniently, the most effective measures for preventing pink eye are things you're probably already doing to protect against COVID-19, including: washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face — and eyes — as much as possible. Rubbing your eyes significantly increases your chances of contracting conjunctivitis — and spreading it to other people. If someone in your bubble does get pink eye, everyone should double down on their hand-washing efforts to prevent it from spreading around the house. One sneaky way that pink eye can be transferred, Dr. Miller pointed out, is through sharing a towel.

Pink eye and COVID-19

Recent studies, including one study that was published in JAMA Opthalmology in August, suggest that there may be a link between pink eye symptoms and COVID-19, though more research needs to be done, especially considering that pink eye does not appear to be a very common symptom of COVID-19.

"About 20% of children may get pink eye with COVID," said Lee, "whereas in adults, it's more rare, closer to 1 to 3% — and not usually a stand-alone symptom. This might be because children are more prone to rub or touch their face when they're sick, since COVID can spread via eye discharge." Lee also cautioned that "if you have pink eye and know of exposure to someone with COVID, or have respiratory symptoms, you should contact your doctor."

The pandemic has taught us all to be more mindful about how we interact with our environment. This newfound awareness can help limit instances of pink eye as well. Pay attention to what you touch and be conscious of any symptoms of pink eye that may arise. These days, said Miller, “no one should be touching their face anyway.”