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What Is Commonly Misdiagnosed as Pink Eye?

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A close up of a man's left eye, suffering from pink eye

Your Eyes Are Pink, but It’s Not Pink Eye!

If your eyes are pink or red, it might not be pink eye. Your eyes can only respond to injury, irritation, or infection in so many ways. Allergies or dry eyes can also cause redness or swelling.

When you notice redness in the whites of your eye, don’t try to treat yourself for pink eye. Instead, call your optometrist for a comprehensive eye exam. A thorough examination of your eye health, and your eye care habits, can help rule out eye conditions similar to or more severe than pink eye.

How to Recognize Pink Eye

Pink eye or conjunctivitis is any condition causing swelling or inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the transparent tissue layer that covers the whites of your eyes. 

Conjunctivitis is highly contagious and is usually spread through close contact, coughing, sneezing, or touching a shared object or surface. Washing your hands regularly and avoiding touching your eye or face can help prevent transmission. 

The signs and symptoms of pink eye can vary, as there are different causes. The broad symptoms of pink eye include:

General Conjunctivitis Symptoms

  • Redness (or pinkness) in the white of the eye(s)
  • Watery eyes
  • Urge to rub the eye(s)
  • Discharge
  • Crusty eyelids or eyelashes
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva or eyelids
  • Irritation or burning
  • Feeling a foreign object in the eye(s)
  • Contact lenses feel uncomfortable or shift frequently

Allergic Conjunctivitis Symptoms

Sometimes allergies are the culprit behind your red eyes, not pink eye. When allergies are to blame, the symptoms usually affect both eyes. It usually accompanies other allergy symptoms, including:

  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Asthma
  • Nasal irritation (itchiness or runny nose)

Allergies can be tricky and sometimes increase our risk of spreading or contracting eye infections. We’re more tempted to touch our faces and eyes as we deal with the symptoms of allergies. 

Kids with allergies are particularly vulnerable because it’s harder for them to resist the urge to touch.

Allergic conjunctivitis in children doesn’t generally cause significant or long-term vision or health problems. However, the urge to rub and touch their eyes can cause complications. 

If steroids are part of the treatment, adults should carefully monitor their use to protect their child’s eyes.

If your child needs relief from irritated eyes, call your optometrist for an eye exam. Your eye care team can work with you to find the best methods for treating symptoms and protecting their eye health.

A close-up view of a woman's closed eye, with a red, swollen eyelid caused by a stye

What Looks Like Pink Eye?

Although many eye conditions can look like pink eye during an early stage, most eye problems develop unique symptoms later. But some eye problems mirror pink eye closely and can muddle the diagnosis.

Sometimes diagnosing eye health can be tricky when we don’t have the vocabulary to express how our eyes feel or other symptoms. For example, something as simple as red eyes and blurry vision can be labelled pink eye when it’s really a more serious condition.

Here are eye conditions commonly confused with pink eye:


A stye (hordeolum) is a painful lump caused by a bacterial infection in a clogged oil gland. The small, red lump can grow at the base of your eyelash or under your eyelid.

Symptoms include:

  • Swollen eyelid
  • Watery eye
  • Discharge
  • Light sensitivity
  • Gritty feeling in the eye
  • Crusty eyelids or eyelashes


Blepharitis is caused by bacteria buildup, often resulting from clogged or irritated oil glands behind your eyelashes and eyelids. Keeping your skin and eyes clean is essential in preventing excessive or harmful bacteria growth.

Common symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • Redness (eye or eyelids)
  • Swelling
  • Dry eyes
  • Foamy tears
  • Blurry vision
  • Watery eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Burning or stinging
  • Feeling a foreign object in the eye
  • Eyelashes fall out or grow irregularly
  • Crusty eyelids or eyelashes


Keratitis is an inflammatory condition caused by injury or infection. The most visible symptom is redness or inflammation of the cornea, the transparent outer layer of your eye. 

The condition can be infectious or noninfectious. 

Symptoms of keratitis include:

  • Redness
  • Watery eyes
  • Discharge
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Pain or irritation


Iritis or anterior uveitis is inflammation of the iris (coloured part of your eye). However, it can also sometimes present with inflammation or redness in the white of your eye. Iritis can develop in one eye or both, depending on the cause, such as injury.

Typically symptoms of iritis include:

  • Redness (iris or front of eye)
  • Eye pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Floaters
  • Light sensitivity
  • Vision loss


Glaucoma is a group of disorders and is the leading cause of blindness in Canada. The condition damages the optic nerve, a bundle of nerve cells responsible for transmitting signals to our brain, telling us what we see.

As there are many causes of glaucoma, the symptoms vary. Common symptoms of glaucoma include:

Team Up to Protect Your Eye Health

Protecting your vision and ocular health is a lifelong journey, and we’re here to help. At Legacy Eye Care, our eye care team is always ready to answer your vision questions.

You’re an expert about you, and we’re experts about eyes. Together, we can look at your eye health to find out what’s bothering your eyes—even if it is pink eye.We’re available to listen and find the best solutions for your lifestyle. So give us a call and book an appointment so we can team up to protect your eye health.

Written by Dr. Puneet Randhawa

Dr. Puneet Randhawa believes in building a genuine, long term relationship with her patients. She strives to bring forth a commitment to excellent patient care. Realizing that her patients are of different ages, with different visual needs, she takes a personal approach to their eye care. She is a skilled optometrist with over eight years of experience in comprehensive eye care including refractive and contact lens fittings. She uses her knowledge and her experience to provide treatment for ocular pathology, therapeutics and pre and post-op surgical co management.
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