Denver Eye Doctor: Pink Eye or Allergies – How To Spot the Difference

Ah-choo! Excuse me, my allergies are terrible. It’s just that time of year, and local allergists have reported that this is one of Denver’s worst allergy seasons on record. At least I’m not as bad as Jimmy over there; his eyes are redder than a ripe tomato.

But is it all allergies? With all this pollen, cotton, and grass floating through the air and into our bodies, it can be hard to tell the difference between the season’s everyday suffering and real sickness. Eyes are especially contentious: as they fight a constant battle against allergens, they are still susceptible to other infections. So before you try to treat any optical ailments, read this so you can know what you’re dealing with.

Allergies vs Pink Eye: What’s The Difference?

allergies vs pink eyeAllergic eye irritation and “pink eye” are two different forms of the same, most common type of eye infection: conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a moistening tissue inside the eyelid and on the white of the eyeball. There are four major types: allergic conjunctivitis, viral conjunctivitis, bacterial conjunctivitis (a.k.a. pink eye), and mechanical irritation conjunctivitis.

If you’ve ever suffered from allergen-based eye itchiness, you’ve had allergic conjunctivitis. Seasonal hay fever allergens like pollen and grass or perennial allergens like dust, mold, and animals will bring on all symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis evenly in both eyes: chronic eye itchiness, clear watery discharge, and swelling. It is not contagious, but it’s certainly uncomfortable, so treat it with your basic allergy medicines or with antihistamine eye drops. This should alleviate the irritation temporarily, but symptoms will persist as long as allergens exist.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis comes on fast when the eye or body is infected with a virus. Often just an additional symptom of the cold or flu, viral conjunctivitis causes a sticky, watery discharge that is very contagious. This infection should go away within 3-5 days, but it can also trigger bacterial conjunctivitis. Unlike their allergic cousin, both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis infect only one eye at first and take several days to infect the other.

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Pink eye is just the simple term for bacterial conjunctivitis, a common, annoying, and very contagious eye infection. In addition to the bold red or pink appearance of one eye, bacterial conjunctivitis causes a goopy or crusty discharge, a yellow-greenish pus that accumulates around the eye and can stick your eye shut in the morning. Untreated, it can last well over a week, but antibiotic eye drops from your eye doctor will clear out the infection within 24-48 hours.

Mechanical Irritation Conjunctivitis

Finally, immediate eye pain and tearing is a sign of mechanical irritation conjunctivitis, a chronic conjunctive irritation caused by contact lenses, smoke, chemicals, or other foreign bodies. Flush your eyes out with water or filtered air and the irritation should be gone within a day.

Eye redness can also be a result of minor irritations: blood vessels on the eye’s surface swell from the sun, wind, environmental dryness, chlorine, shampoo, dust, prolonged reading or computer use, or drug and alcohol consumption. These are usually minor problems that most soothing eye drops will solve.

Whatever the irritation is, you can follow these instructions to alleviate the irritation:

  • keep your hands clean
  • avoid touching your eyes and face
  • bathe your eyes with cold water or a clean, wet rag
  • avoid the allergen or contaminant
  • swap your contacts for glasses

Conjunctivitis Treatment Options

The most common causes of conjunctivitis are bacterial and viral infections, though allergy-related conjunctivitis is also a problem for many people. Unfortunately, conjunctivitis can take a very long time to clear up on its own, if left untreated. It can also easily spread to others and be very uncomfortable to endure.

  • Viral Conjunctivitis – The most common treatment is actually a home remedy. To care for this type of pink eye, you’ll want to use a clean, cold washcloth as a compress several times per day until all symptoms have passed. For many people, issues are resolved within just a few days.
  • Bacterial Conjunctivitis – Generally, treatment requires antibiotic drops or ointments. When the medicine is used properly, conjunctivitis is usually remedied within a week.
  • Allergic Conjunctivitis – Often, the best treatment is with the cold compress method, at least to relieve discomfort and physical symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe eye drops if the problem becomes more severe.


Getting conjunctivitis isn’t particularly pleasant, and if you have physical symptoms, people won’t want you in school or in the workplace as it’s a contagious problem in some cases.

Fortunately, preventing conjunctivitis is relatively simple if you follow these basic tips.

  • Avoid sharing items like hand towels, wash cloths and towels used for bathing. Even at home, sharing these items can cause issues.
  • Wash your hands frequently at home and in public.
  • Keep hand sanitizer or personal disinfectant with you. This is particularly important in a school or office setting, especially during the winter season when people are most susceptible to illness.
  • Clean surfaces like countertops, vanities, desks and shared phones regularly. Disinfectant wipes work very well in shared spaces.
  • Never share contact lenses or glasses. Even glasses can transmit bacteria.
  • Remove contact lenses before using a hot tub or steam shower. Removing them will help keep bacteria from causing problems.
  • Always wear goggles when swimming. Doing this will keep microorganisms and bacteria in the water out of your eyes.


Your Colorado eye care professionals at Vision Care Specialists can help you diagnose eye irritation to determine proper treatment. The eye doctors in our five Colorado offices prioritize your eye health and are always eager to help. Give us a call today at 303-991-9600 or schedule an appointment online.