Knowing the Difference Between Viral and Bacterial Pink Eye

There’s no need for panic if you notice signs of pink eye in you or your child. While the condition can cause unsightly inflammation and swelling of an affected eye, it ranks among the most common and curable eye conditions in the world. In the United States, pink eye affects about 6 million people annually. 

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, results from an infection of your conjunctiva, the thin, transparent layer of tissue that lines the white part of your eyeball and inner surface of your eyelids. When a virus or bacteria infects the small blood vessels of the conjunctiva, the blood vessels become inflamed and appear reddish or pink. The appropriate treatment for your condition will depend on whether you have a case of viral or bacterial pink eye. 

Pink eye treatment specialist Jacob West, OD, of West Vision in Tyler, Texas, can provide an accurate diagnosis, so you can get the right treatment for your condition. Whether you have a case of viral or bacterial pink eye, Dr. West will determine an appropriate treatment plan to reduce the spread of infection and help you feel comfortable. 

Read on to find out how to recognize the difference between viral and bacterial pink eye and how their treatments differ.

Symptoms of viral pink eye

Viral pink eye is the most common variation of this disease. The condition is typically caused by adenoviruses, the same group of viruses that cause the common cold. Cold-like symptoms, including a runny nose, sinus congestion, and sore throat may accompany viral pink eye.

Symptoms of viral pink eye typically include red eyes with a watery discharge. Your eyes may hurt, burn, or itch. You may also feel the sensation of having sand under your eyelids. Sensitivity to light can also occur.

This type of pink eye often accompanies upper respiratory ailments. It’s often spread by coughing and sneezing and can remain contagious for up to 12 days after your symptoms begin. It can quickly spread through schools, offices, and other places where people exist close to each other. 

Symptoms of bacterial pink eye

Bacterial pink eye typically involves many of the same irritating symptoms as those that occur with viral pink eye. Eye pain, itching, and swelling are common and can vary in severity. 

Bacterial pink eye is often caused by staphylococci and streptococci. Bacterial pink eye typically occurs more often from December through April.

Symptoms unique to bacterial pink eye include enlarged lymph nodes in front of your ears. You may also experience a discharge of sticky, yellow or green pus that drains from the corner of the infected eye. With bacterial pink eye, it’s common for your eyelids to feel stuck together in the morning after pus has drained and dried on your eyelids overnight. 

Bacterial pink eye usually spreads when a healthy person has direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or with items that have touched their infected eye. Hand-to-eye contact is the typical route of infection.


The treatment prescribed for your pink eye will depend on Dr. West’s diagnosis. Viral pink eye doesn’t require special treatment. Just like a cold, viral pink eye has to run its course and work itself out of your body on its own. You can get relief from itching and other uncomfortable symptoms by placing a cool, wet washcloth on your eyes. 

If you have a case of bacterial pink eye, Dr. West may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments to fight the infection. You may also need an oral antibiotic if you have the same infection in your throat, ears, or chest.

Furthermore, no matter if you have a viral or bacterial infection, you’ll want to limit the spread of the infection to others. You can help do this by avoiding touching your eyes, washing your hands frequently, and covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.

Cases of viral and bacterial pink eye usually resolve in 1-2 weeks. Pink eye that doesn’t improve will require further evaluation by Dr. West. Noninfectious pink eye can indicate other eye conditions, such as allergies, dry eye, chemical irritation, or a foreign body in the eye, all of which may require additional treatment.

To find out whether you’re suffering from viral or bacterial pink eye or another type of eye condition, book an appointment online or over the phone with West Vision today.

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