Eye allergies vs. pink eye: What’s the difference?
Both pink eye and the eye irritation caused by allergies are types of conjunctivitis, which is when the eye’s conjunctiva becomes inflamed or infected. The three most common types of conjunctivitis are viral, bacterial and allergic.
If your allergies are acting up and you’ve got red, watery, itchy eyes, that’s called allergic conjunctivitis — wherein your conjunctiva are inflamed by your allergies.
Pink eye, however, is the commonly used name for when the conjunctiva is infected, rather than inflamed or irritated. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both often called pink eye, though “pink eye” is technically only viral conjunctivitis. Some cases of viral conjunctivitis are also called “eye colds” if they’re caused by cold or flu viruses.
No matter what you call them, viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious. Allergic conjunctivitis is not, but you might not be able to tell the difference without visiting your eye doctor.
Common symptoms of eye allergies vs. conjunctivitis
Redness, watering, itching, burning, grittiness and swollen eyelids can be indications of all three kinds of conjunctivitis. Another common symptom is eye discharge. With allergic and viral conjunctivitis, eye discharge tends to be thin and whitish in color. With bacterial conjunctivitis, it is usually thicker and may be green or yellow.
Viral and allergic conjunctivitis have other symptoms in common as well.
If your eyes are inflamed by allergies, it’s pretty likely that you’re also experiencing the sneezing, runny and itchy nose, and cough that accompany allergies. Viral conjunctivitis is usually caused by the adenovirus and other cold and flu viruses.
Since cold and flu symptoms are so similar to allergy symptoms, most of us have asked ourselves, “Do I have a cold, or is it just allergies?”
Conjunctivitis vs. other eye infections
Eye allergies and conjunctivitis also cause many of the same symptoms as several other eye infections. For example, allergic conjunctivitis and pink eye can look and feel nearly identical to uveitis and keratitis. They can also mimic the symptoms of blepharitis and a blocked tear duct.
If left untreated, bacterial conjunctivitis and some of the other infection types can be serious and even lead to vision loss.
Treating allergic conjunctivitis
The first step in treating eye allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis, is doing your best to avoid the allergen(s) causing your flare up. Most often, they are the same culprits that cause your other allergy symptoms, such as pollen, dust and pets. Allergic conjunctivitis usually lasts as long as you’re exposed to the allergen, so it may be a couple of weeks, seasonal or even chronic.
As many allergy sufferers know, avoiding the things you are allergic to can be easier said than done. If you aren’t able to avoid allergens, it’s helpful to wash your hands frequently and make sure you don’t touch your eyes. As itchy as they may be, rubbing them can make the inflammation worse.
It’s especially important to wash your hands often throughout the day if you’re allergic to a family pet. Most people with pet allergies know better than to touch their eyes after playing with the furry member of the family, but pet fur and dander can collect on surfaces all over the house. You can potentially transfer the allergen to your eyes after touching the couch, bed, carpet or anywhere the pet likes to hang out.
Other options to alleviate symptoms include taking oral antihistamines or using antihistamine or prescription eye drops. To further help sooth burning and itching eyes, you can try some at-home and natural remedies, like applying cool compresses or cucumber slices to your eyes.
SEE RELATED: How to treat pink eye
When to see a doctor about eye allergies
Though allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious and won’t cause eye damage, it’s important to know for sure that you don’t have another type of conjunctivitis or eye infection. Eye allergy symptoms can often be indistinguishable from those of viral and bacterial conjunctivitis and other serious eye infections.
If your symptoms are severe or last more than a week or so, you should talk to your doctor. Most doctors will recommend having an exam to rule out bacterial conjunctivitis and other infections, as well as to make sure you receive the proper treatment. Plus, if you have severe or chronic eye allergies, your doctor may be able to prescribe a stronger antihistamine or eyedrops to help relieve your symptoms.
If you don’t already have an eye doctor you see regularly, we have some great information available for you on how to choose the right eye doctor for your needs.
The American Optometric Association recommends that everyone should have a comprehensive eye exam every one to two years, depending on age. So, whether you need relief from eye allergies or it’s just been a while since your last eye exam, find an experienced eye doctor near you and schedule an appointment.
Page published in August 2020
Page updated in December 2021