What Is Commonly Misdiagnosed As Pink Eye? Study Published In Jama Ophthalmology

Conditions commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye include allergic reactions, dry eye syndrome, corneal abrasions, irritants, subconjunctival hemorrhage, uveitis, and contact lens-related issues. A precise diagnosis by an eye care professional is crucial for accurate treatment and better patient outcomes (American Academy of Ophthalmology).

A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology suggests that up to 50% of conjunctivitis cases are misdiagnosed in primary care settings. Besides this, there are a lot more things to discuss about being misdiagnosed as pink eye that can make you wonder. 

Stay tuned for insights on what conditions are frequently mistaken for pink eye. Later in this blog, we’ll delve into the nuances of commonly misdiagnosed eye conditions.

What is Pink Eye? A Key Note from Different Studies and Medical Centers 

About Pink Eye: An Overview

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis. According to WebMD, pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inner surface of the eyelids. 

According to Mayoclinic (nonprofit American academic medical center), “Pink eye refers to inflammation of the transparent membrane that lines the eyeball and eyelid.”

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What is commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye? Things You Should Know About 

Several conditions can be mistaken for pink eye (conjunctivitis) due to overlapping symptoms. Some common misdiagnoses include:

a) Allergic Reactions:

Similar Symptoms: Allergic conjunctivitis shares symptoms like redness, itching, and tearing with infectious pink eye.

Distinguishing Factor: Allergic reactions are often associated with other allergy symptoms like sneezing and nasal congestion.

b) Dry Eye Syndrome:

Similar Symptoms: Dry eyes can cause redness, irritation, and a gritty sensation, resembling some symptoms of pink eye.

Distinguishing Factor: Dry eye syndrome is primarily related to inadequate tear production or poor tear quality.

c) Corneal Abrasion or Injury:

Similar Symptoms: Eye redness and discomfort can occur in cases of corneal abrasions or injuries.

Distinguishing Factor: A thorough eye examination is necessary to identify physical damage to the cornea.

d) Irritants or Foreign Bodies:

Similar Symptoms: Exposure to irritants or foreign bodies can lead to redness, tearing, and discomfort, mimicking pink eye.

Distinguishing Factor: Identification of the specific irritant or foreign body may require a detailed examination.

e) Subconjunctival Hemorrhage:

Similar Symptoms: A burst blood vessel in the eye can cause redness, resembling the appearance of conjunctivitis.

Distinguishing Factor: Subconjunctival hemorrhage is typically painless and results in a bright red patch on the white part of the eye.

f) Uveitis:

Similar Symptoms: Uveitis, inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, can present with redness and eye discomfort.

Distinguishing Factor: Uveitis often involves deeper eye structures and requires a comprehensive eye examination for diagnosis.

g) Contact Lens-Related Issues:

Similar Symptoms: Problems related to contact lens use, such as dryness or improper fit, may cause red eyes.

Distinguishing Factor: A careful evaluation of contact lens hygiene, fit, and wear time is essential for an accurate diagnosis.

Causes & Symptoms of Pink Eye 

You can suffer from Pink Eye or conjunctivitis due to viruses, bacteria, allergens, or irritants ¬ Ophthalmologist Sezen Karakus, M.D., of the Wilmer Eye Institute

According to Duke University Hospital, conjunctivitis or “pink eye,” can be caused by viruses (like the common cold), bacteria, or allergies.  Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are very contagious!

pink eye img

In response to a tweet on Twitter, Dr. Neu stated that things (pink eye) are not as simple as most people think. Remarkably, he claimed that 90% of cases of pink eye do not result from bacterial causes. 

pink eye

Either pink eye is a minor infection that can be cured on its own or it can be a sign of a serious eye hazard. In a clinical sense, it’s a contagious disease. 

A Table of Types, Causes and Symptoms of Pink Eye:

You can have pink eyes in one or both of your eyes. It can spread from person to person easily and rapidly. Let’s check out the types, causes and symptoms of Pink Eye (swelling of the eye). 

Types, Causes and Symptoms of Conjunctivitis: 

There are several types of conjunctivitis, each with distinct characteristics:

Conjunctivitis (pink eye)DescriptionSymptoms
1. Viral Conjunctivitis Caused by a virus, often the same virus responsible for the common cold.
Watery eyes, light sensitivity, and itchy or burning sensation
2. Bacterial ConjunctivitisCaused by bacteria, most commonly Staphylococcus or Streptococcus.Thick yellow or green discharge, redness, and sticky eyelids upon waking.
3. Allergic ConjunctivitisTriggered by exposure to allergens like pollen, pet dander, or dust mites.Itchy eyes, redness, and tearing, often accompanied by other allergy symptoms like sneezing.
4. Chemical ConjunctivitisCaused by exposure to irritants like chlorine in swimming pools, smoke, or harsh chemicals.Burning sensation, redness, and excessive tearing.
5. Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis (GPC)Often associated with the prolonged use of contact lenses.Itching, redness, and the formation of small bumps (papillae) on the inner side of the eyelids.
6. Neonatal ConjunctivitisIt occurs in newborns, often within the first month of life. It can be bacterial (resulting from exposure to the mother’s birth canal) or viral (from maternal infections like herpes simplex virus).Eye discharge, redness, and swelling.

How Do You Get Pink Eye?

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, can be contracted through various means:

a) Viral Transmission:

Direct Contact: Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus and then touching the eyes.

Respiratory Droplets: Airborne viruses from coughing or sneezing can reach the eyes, leading to infection.

b) Bacterial Transmission:

Direct Contact: Touching the eyes after coming into contact with an infected person or surfaces carrying bacteria.

Personal Items: Sharing personal items like towels, pillowcases, or cosmetics with someone who has bacterial conjunctivitis.

c) Allergic Causes:

Exposure to Allergens: Contact with substances triggering allergies, such as pollen, pet dander, or dust mites.

Airborne Irritants: Environmental factors like smoke or pollution irritating the eyes.

d) Chemical Irritation:

Contact with Irritants: Exposure to chemicals or substances causing irritation, such as chlorine in swimming pools or harsh cleaning agents.

Inadequate Eye Protection: Failing to use protective gear, like goggles, in environments with potential irritants.

e) Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis (GPC):

Extended Contact Lens Use: Wearing contact lenses for prolonged periods without proper cleaning or maintenance.

Poor Hygiene: Inadequate cleaning of contact lenses or using contaminated lens solutions.

f) Neonatal Conjunctivitis:

During Childbirth: Newborns can contract conjunctivitis during childbirth if exposed to bacteria or viruses in the mother’s birth canal.

Learn More: how pink eye spreads, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

How do you tell if it’s pink eye or something else?

An ophthalmologist distinguishes pink eye by assessing symptoms, performing a thorough eye examination, and considering patient history. 

Viral conjunctivitis often presents with watery discharge, while bacterial conjunctivitis has a thicker discharge. 

Allergic conjunctivitis involves itching and a history of allergies. A specialist rules out other conditions like dry eye or corneal abrasions through detailed examinations. 

Accurate diagnosis guides appropriate treatment, highlighting the importance of consulting an ophthalmologist for precise evaluation and care.

Treatment for Pink Eye: Lets’Have a Look 

The treatment for pink eye depends on its cause:

a) Viral Conjunctivitis:

Typically, it resolves on its own. Cold compresses and artificial tears for symptom relief.

b) Bacterial conjunctivitis:

Antibiotic eye drops or ointments work well according to ophthalmic specialists. 

c) Allergic Conjunctivitis:

  • Allergen avoidance.
  • Antihistamine eye drops or oral medications for relief.

d) Chemical Conjunctivitis:

  • Rinse eyes with clean water. 
  • Seek medical attention for severe cases.

Regardless, consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and guidance on appropriate treatment.

Is there anything that mimics pink eye?

Conditions mimicking pink eye include allergic reactions, dry eye syndrome, corneal abrasions, irritants or foreign bodies, subconjunctival hemorrhage, uveitis, and contact lens-related issues. 

These share symptoms like redness and discomfort. Precise diagnosis by a healthcare professional, often an ophthalmologist, is essential to differentiate and treat accurately.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Are there other eye infections than the pink eye?

Yes, various eye infections exist beyond pink eye, including blepharitis, keratitis, and endophthalmitis. These conditions affect different parts of the eye and require specific diagnosis and treatment by an eye care professional.

What is the fastest way to cure pink eye at home?

While home remedies can alleviate pink eye symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment. For relief, apply warm compresses, practice good hygiene, and avoid rubbing the eyes. 

Use artificial tears or over-the-counter lubricating eye drops. Ensure cleanliness, wash hands frequently, and avoid sharing towels or pillows. 

However, if symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical advice promptly. Home remedies provide comfort but are not a substitute for professional care in treating pink eye effectively.

What can I replace after pink eye?

Replace personal items like towels, pillowcases, and cosmetics used during pink eye to prevent reinfection. Ensure good hygiene practices and avoid sharing these items with others.

Does pink eye go away by itself?

Most cases of viral conjunctivitis resolve on their own within a few days to two weeks. Bacterial conjunctivitis may require antibiotic treatment for a quicker recovery. Consult a healthcare professional.


Various conditions, including allergic reactions, dry eye syndrome, and corneal abrasions, are commonly misdiagnosed as pink eye due to shared symptoms. The healthcare community must collaborate and heighten awareness regarding these potential misdiagnoses. 

Accurate diagnoses are crucial for effective treatment and optimal patient outcomes. By fostering a collective commitment to precision in healthcare, we can ensure that individuals receive the right interventions, leading to improved well-being and vision health.

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