How to Tell if You Have Bacterial or Viral Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is an inflammation or infection in the conjunctiva of your eye. When the small blood vessels become inflamed, they’re more visible, and this is what causes the whites of your eye to look reddish or pink. 

Even though conjunctivitis is uncomfortable and irritating, it rarely affects the vision. However, you’ll want to treat it right away because pink eye is highly contagious and can spread to others in the home. 

Treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the type you have – bacterial or viral. You won’t notice much of a difference between the two but your eye doctor will. To help you prepare for your appointment, let’s talk more about bacterial and viral conjunctivitis and how to tell which case you have. 

Bacterial vs Viral Conjunctivitis

Bacterial pink eye is caused by an infection. Usually the bacteria spreads to the eyes from the skin or respiratory system. Some of the most common ways this happens are by touching the eyes with unwashed hands, sharing personal items with someone who’s infected or applying makeup that’s contaminated with bacteria.  

Viral pink eye is caused by a virus instead of bacteria. It can spread from your nose to your eyes, or you can catch it from someone who coughs or sneezes droplets into the air. Viral pink eye usually starts in one eye but it can spread to the other eye. 

How to Tell the Difference 

Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis often start as an upper respiratory infection and then travel to the eyes. The symptoms are generally the same and include: 

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eyes 
  • Itchy or scratchy feeling
  • Burning or irritation 
  • Tearing 
  • Swelling 
  • Crusting of the eyelids or lashes 
  • Discharge 

So how can you tell the difference between the two types of pink eye? Eye doctors have a few tricks. Viral pink eye usually starts in one eye following a cold or respiratory infection and causes watery discharge. Bacterial pink eye can affect one or both eyes and usually starts with a respiratory or ear infection. The discharge tends to be thick and makes the eyes stick together. 

What is the Treatment for Pink Eye? 

Most cases of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis get better without treatment in a few days or so. In the meantime, you can follow self-care strategies like artificial tears, hot and cold compresses and cleaning the eyes. 

For more severe cases of pink eye, you will need to see your eye specialist for a prescription medication. Antibiotic eye drops or ointment are the first line of defense and are strong enough to clear up severe cases of bacterial pink eye. Your eye doctor may also prescribe steroid eye drops to reduce inflammation. 

If you continue to experience pink eye symptoms or regular bouts of pink eye, contact an eye specialist like Empire Retina Consultants for a more detailed exam.