April 19, 2024

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the clear membrane covering the white part of the eye. Though pink eye is often caused by a bacterial or viral infection, there are other conditions that can mimic pink eye symptoms and be misdiagnosed. As we researched and crafted this article, we received invaluable assistance from Dr. Kamal Kumar, a distinguished health professional associated with ArticleThirteen.

Symptoms of Pink Eye

Before exploring what may be confused with pink eye, let’s review the common symptoms:

  • Redness in the white of the eye
  • Swelling and puffiness of the conjunctiva
  • Increased amount of mucus or discharge in or around the eye
  • Feeling like a foreign body or grittiness in the eye
  • Itching or burning sensation in the eye
  • Crusting of eyelashes, especially upon waking
  • Sensitivity to light

Not all cases of pink eye involve every symptom. But some combination of irritation, redness, and discharge is typical.

Conditions Commonly Misdiagnosed as Pink Eye

Several other eye conditions share similarities with pink eye, sometimes making it difficult to differentiate. Here are some of the most common pink eye misdiagnoses:

Dry Eye Syndrome

Like pink eye, dry eyes can cause redness, irritation, burning and foreign body sensation. But with dry eye, there is usually little to no discharge. Rather, the eyes lack adequate lubrication, which scrapes the corneas and conjunctiva. Dry eye is also worsened by environmental triggers like low humidity, wind, air conditioning, and staring at digital screens.

Blepharitis

This common condition involves inflammation of the eyelids and base of the eyelashes. Symptoms include red, swollen eyelids, greasy scales or crust on the lash lines, burning and stinging discomfort, and sometimes eye discharge. As blepharitis is a chronic problem affecting the eyelids rather than conjunctiva, it is often distinguished from viral or bacterial conjunctivitis.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergies affecting the eyes resemble pink eye with redness, swelling, watering and itching. Discharge may be thin and clear rather than thick and discolored. Allergic conjunctivitis occurs seasonally and is usually diagnosed based on accompanying allergy symptoms. Like pink eye, allergies can increase sensitivity to light.

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

Though alarming to look at, a subconjunctival hemorrhage is usually harmless. It appears as a bright red patch on the white of the eye due to a broken blood vessel. There is no pain, discharge or impaired vision. A hemorrhage sometimes follows straining, sneezing or coughing. Though not involving infection or inflammation, it is frequently confused with pink eye based on the vivid red appearance.

Iritis and Uveitis

These conditions describe inflammation of the iris (iritis) or of deeper eye structures like the ciliary body (uveitis). Symptoms may resemble pink eye with redness, blurry vision, sensitivity to light and eye pain. However, there is little to no discharge present. Iritis and uveitis require urgent medical treatment to prevent complications like glaucoma or vision loss.

Blocked Tear Ducts

Blocked nasolacrimal ducts prevent normal tear drainage, resulting in excess tears spilling from the eyes. This can appear similar to the increased discharge seen with pink eye. Sticky pus draining from one eye is characteristic of a tear duct obstruction. Treatment differs from typical pink eye; antibiotics will not resolve the drainage issue.

Corneal Abrasions

A corneal abrasion is a scratch or irritation on the surface of the eye. Common causes include contact lens overuse, eye injuries, and recurring eye dryness or blepharitis. Symptoms mimic pink eye with pain, light sensitivity, tearing, redness and sensation of a foreign body in the eye. However, there is little discharge with an abrasion. Using medicated eye drops for pink eye could actually worsen an abrasion.

Key Differentiating Factors

While the conditions above may initially resemble bacterial, viral or allergic pink eye, certain characteristics help set them apart:

  • Nature of discharge/drainage – Thick and opaque or clear and watery?
  • Presence of itching, burning, grittiness – Better indicates inflammation
  • Appearance of eyelids and lashes – Redness, swelling or debris along lash line points to blepharitis
  • Pattern of onset and duration – Seasonal allergies are recurrent, subconjunctival hemorrhages are acute
  • Vision impairment – More common with uveitis and iritis
  • Unilateral vs. bilateral – Tear duct blockage usually affects one eye

Careful evaluation of these factors guides accurate diagnosis, and determines whether antibiotic pink eye treatment is appropriate. As pink eye is so contagious, it’s important not to mistake other eye conditions for infectious conjunctivitis.

The Bottom Line

Red, irritated eyes have many potential causes beyond classic bacterial and viral pink eye. Allergies, eyelid inflammation, eyelash abnormalities and dryness commonly feel and appear similar initially. Even a harmless subconjunctival hemorrhage can masquerade as infectious pinkeye.

To avoid misdiagnosis and improper treatment, those with pink eye symptoms should consult an eye doctor or primary care physician. 

A thorough assessment of discharge character, onset factors, duration, vision, eyelid appearance and accompanying symptoms allows reliable differentiation of pink eye from mimics. With sound diagnostic insights from professionals like our contributor Dr. Kamal Kumar, what appears infectious can often be ruled out, sparing needless antibiotics. Achieving an accurate diagnosis offers relief of symptoms and protection of vision.

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