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Red, Irritated, Itchy, Watery Eyes: How to Tell If It's Pink Eye or Something Else

Updated on April 26, 2017
FlourishAnyway profile image

I am an industrial/organizational psychologist. Over the last six months, I've struggled with both recurring pink eye as well as scleritis.

Are Your Eyes Making You Miserable?

Are your eyes red, irritated, itchy, watery, crusty, and making you miserable? Learn the difference between pink eye, allergies, and more serious medical problems.
Are your eyes red, irritated, itchy, watery, crusty, and making you miserable? Learn the difference between pink eye, allergies, and more serious medical problems. | Source

Is It Allergies, Pink Eye, or Something More Serious?

Do you see that red, irritated, itchy, watery eye? That's mine on a good day lately. Actually, I have two of them, although one tends to look and feel a lot worse than the other. Over the last six months, I've struggled with both recurring pink eye as well as scleritis, a serious eye condition that involves inflammation of the whites of the eyes.

At first, I delayed seeking medical treatment because I assumed I was suffering with seasonal allergies (e.g., tree, ragwood, mold, pollen). But my eyes became so red they looked like demon's eyes, and they hurt intensely—a stabbing pain.

I wondered if it was pink eye or even some small foreign object in my eye, like an eyelash. However, over-the-counter medications and flushing my eyes did not seem to help.

I waited longer than I should have to consult a professional. If you have bloodshot, uncomfortable eyes that are bothering you, I'd like to help you avoid making that mistake by understanding possible causes and knowing when to see your ophthamologist.

Bloodshot (or red) eyes can have many causes.
Bloodshot (or red) eyes can have many causes. | Source

The Misery of Red, Itchy Eyes

We often take our eyes for granted until something goes wrong.

Your eyes feel red, irritated, itchy, uncomfortable or even painful. Maybe you have crusty discharge or watery eyes that make you look like you're crying. There are a number of potential causes. Could you be suffering from allergies, pink eye, or something more serious?

Ultimately, only an opthamologist can tell you, but here are some common possible reasons for red eyes and associated symptoms.

Why Are My Eyes Red? Common Causes

It Could Be
Or This
Or Even This
allergies or hay fever
foreign object in eye
episcleritis (inflammation of the membrane covering the white part of the eye)
pink eye (conjunctivitis)
blepharitis (inflammation that affects your eyelids)
eye strain
broken blood vessel in eye
glaucoma
corneal abrasion (scratch)
corneal ulcer or corneal herpes infection
chalazion (painless bump or nodule inside the eyelid.
iritis (inflammation of the colored part of the eye)
stye (a red, painful lump near the edge of the eyelid)
eye injury (trauma or burn)
an eyelid that is turned inward or outward
scleritis (inflammation of the white part of the eye)
uveitis (inflammation of the middle layer of the eye)
keratitis (inflammation of the cornea)
dry eyes (decreased tear production)
eyedrops
occular herpes
Source: Mayo Clinic

Moist, Weepy Eyes Are Uncomfortable

Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors:  viruses, bacteria, allergens, or foreign objects.  The color of the discharge (clear, yellow, or green) can help your doctor discern the likely source of your ailment.
Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors: viruses, bacteria, allergens, or foreign objects. The color of the discharge (clear, yellow, or green) can help your doctor discern the likely source of your ailment. | Source

Common Causes of Eye Boogers

Description of Eye Booger
Possible Causes
watery
viral conjunctivitis, allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies, dry eyes, eye injury, blocked tear duct
crusty
blocked tear duct, bacterial conjunctivitis and other eye infections, stye
sticky and gooey
stye, bacterial conjunctivitis and other eye infections, corneal ulcer, blocked tear duct
stringy
dry eyes, corneal ulcer, allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies
Source: All About Vision
Pink eye can affect one or both eyes and may be highly contagious for up to two weeks after syptoms start.
Pink eye can affect one or both eyes and may be highly contagious for up to two weeks after syptoms start. | Source

Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

Also called conjunctivitis, pink eye involves redness or pinkness of the conjunctivae, the membranes that cover the whites of the eyes and inner eyelids. Pink eye is a common ailment and can be highly contagious.

How to Prevent Pink Eye from Spreading

If you suspect you may have pink eye, keep this uncomfortable and potentially very contagious condition from spreading to others.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching the eyes
  • Change pillowcase frequently
  • Avoid shaking hands when you have pink eye
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, makeup, eyedrops, handkerchiefs and tissues.

Symptoms

This illness is typically transmitted via direct contact with an infected person's eye secretions or bacteria living in the nose or sinuses—a good reason to cover those sneezes, wash those hands, and avoid touching your eyes!

Symptoms of pink eye can include

  • redness in the eye
  • swelling
  • watering
  • gritty feeling and an urge to rub the eye(s)
  • itchiness, irritation and/or a burning sensation
  • discharge that may be green, yellow, or clear
  • eyelid and eyelash crusting, particularly upon waking
  • enlargement or tenderness of the lymph node in front of the ear and
  • contact lenses that do not stay in place on the eye and/or feel uncomfortable.

Source

Causes and Potential Consequences

Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors, including viruses, bacteria, allergies, and irritants (e.g., a chemical splash, foreign object). Viral and bacteria forms are highly contagious.

Applying a wet compress—a clean, wet washcloth—to the eyes can help alleviate the symptoms of viral or bacteria pink eye. Viral pink eye typically resolves on its own after a week or two. Bacterial pink eye, however, calls for a prescription of antibiotic eye drops.

Potential complications of pink eye may include an inflammation of the cornea which can impair vision. Repeated bouts of pink eye such as the kind I've been having suggest an underlying systemic disease. See an opthamologist if your suspected pink eye persists, if the discharge from your eyes is yellow or green (suggesting bacterial pink eye), or if you are unsure what it might be.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Allergies may be caused by factors such as dust mites; pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds; animal dander; molds; contact lenses and lens solution; and cosmetics.Meet your roomates.  Dust mites are microscopic bugs related to spiders.  They feed off flakes of skin and live in warm, moist environments such as mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains.
Allergies may be caused by factors such as dust mites; pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds; animal dander; molds; contact lenses and lens solution; and cosmetics.
Allergies may be caused by factors such as dust mites; pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds; animal dander; molds; contact lenses and lens solution; and cosmetics. | Source
Meet your roomates.  Dust mites are microscopic bugs related to spiders.  They feed off flakes of skin and live in warm, moist environments such as mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains.
Meet your roomates. Dust mites are microscopic bugs related to spiders. They feed off flakes of skin and live in warm, moist environments such as mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains. | Source

Allergies

If it's allergy season where you live, you may at first assume that's what is wrong with your red, itchy eyes. It's not necessarily the case.

Symptoms

As a rule of thumb, allergies carry with them fewer symptoms than infections. These symptoms typically include redness, itching, burning, and a clear watery discharge. (If the discharge from your eyes is anything more than this (e.g., colored, thick), assume an infection.)

With allergies, you may also have symptoms that extend beyond the eyes, such as nasal congestion, a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, scratchy or sore throat, and a cough from post-nasal drip.

Causes

Allergies occur when your immune system recognizes a substance as harmful and overreacts to it. Your environment is filled with potential allergens:

  • Dust mites
  • Pollen from trees, plants, grasses, ragweed, etc.
  • Animal dander
  • Molds
  • Contact lenses and lens solution and
  • Cosmetics.

Symptoms are often alleviated with allergy eye drops, artificial tears, and over-the-counter allergy medications (e.g., Benadryl, Flonase, Claritin, Zyrtec). Sometimes, however, a prescription is necessary, including general allergy medications (e.g., Singular), anti-inflammatory drops, and/or steroids.

Scleritis is an inflammation of the sclera, or whites of the eyes.  The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball.
Scleritis is an inflammation of the sclera, or whites of the eyes. The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball. | Source

Scleritis

Inflammation of the whites of the eyes

Who knew the whites of your eyes could become inflamed? The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball.

Symptoms

Scleritis is an uncommon but serious eye disease, and its symptoms include:

  • an angry red color (sometimes with a violet or even blue tinge) affecting one or both eyes; it can be either diffuse or comfined to a pie-shaped area
  • tenderness to the touch
  • blurred vision
  • extreme light sensitivity (photosensitivity)
  • teary eyes (you feel like your eyes are involuntarily leaking) and
  • moderate to severe pain that feels deep and penetrating (a stabbing "ice pick" pain) and may radiate to the face, jaw, and down the neck.

Scleritis feels as bad as it looks.  The redness can be diffuse or concentrated in a pie shape, as in this photo.  Pain is deep and penetrating.
Scleritis feels as bad as it looks. The redness can be diffuse or concentrated in a pie shape, as in this photo. Pain is deep and penetrating. | Source

Causes and Potential Consequences of Scleritis

The cause of scleritis is unknown in about half of all cases. However, the other half of scleritis cases involve a manifestation of a systemic autoimmune condition, including:

  • Sarcoidosis
  • Rheumatoid Arthiritis (RA) and other types of inflammatory arthiritis
  • Lupus
  • Wegener Granulomatosis
  • Syphillis
  • Lyme Disease
  • Mixed Connective Tissue Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Sjogren's Syndrome
  • Scleroderma
  • Vasculitis and
  • Tuberculosis.

If you're thinking "I don't have any of these diseases, so I'm fine," then be careful. Scleritis may be the initial symptom, meaning that you don't know you have one of these autoimmune diseases until you are faced with this eye condition. My opthamologist refered me to a rheumatologist for extensive testing for a wide range of conditions, including those above. The results were that I may have lupus.

Potential complications of scleritis include retinal detachment, angle-closure glaucoma, and loss of vision. Don't risk your eyesight. If you are concerned that you may have symptoms of scleritis, see your opthamologist immediately.

Why is my eye red, irritated, and teary?  There are a number of potential causes.  If in doubt, see an opthamologist.
Why is my eye red, irritated, and teary? There are a number of potential causes. If in doubt, see an opthamologist. | Source

Summary of Similarities and Differences: Bacterial and Viral Pink Eye, Allergies & Scleritis

 
Bacterial or Viral Pink Eye
Seasonal Allergies
Scleritis
Description of condition
A common eye ailment involving redness or pinkness of the conjunctivae, the membranes that cover the whites of the eyes and inner eyelids
A common condition that occurs when the body's immune system recognizes a substance as harmful and overreacts to it. May be chronic or last a long time.
A serious eye disease involving inflammation of the whites of one's eyes. Typically associated with underlying autoimmune conditions.
Affects one or both eyes?
One or both eyes
Both eyes
One or both eyes
Common symptoms
Redness, swelling, watering, grittiness, urge to rub one's eyes, discharge (yellow, green or clear), eyelid crusting upon waking, contact lenses that are uncomfortable or won't stay in place
Redness, itching, burning, clear watery discharge
Moderate to severe pain, redness, tearing, light sensitivity, eye tenderness, decreased visual acuity. Usually no eye discharge.
Painful or merely uncomfortable?
Uncomfortable or mildly painful
Uncomfortable, not painful
Moderately to severely painful; deep, penetrating pain
Common causes
Direct contact with an infected person; touching an item that an infected person has touched then touching one's eyes; poor handwashing
Dust mites; pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds; animal dander; molds; contact lenses and lens solution; and cosmetics.
Half of cases have no apparent cause. The other half are due to underlying systemic diseases such as connective tissue disorders, autoimmune diseases, or vasculitic abnormalities.
Contagious?
Can be highly contagious
No
Typically not
Diagnosis
Exam by opthamologist may include sampling eye discharge for testing
Your family physician or opthamologist may refer you to an allergist who will take your personal and medical history and may perform allergy testing.
Exam by ophthamologist; blood tests for possible underlying medical conditions.
Treatment
Artificial tears; antibiotic eyedrops for bacterial pinkeye or secondary infections caused by scratching; viral pink eye should simply run its course in 1-2 weeks
Allergy drops, artificial tears, and over-the-counter allergy medications,
Specific treatment for underlying autoimmune condition, anti-inflammatory eye drops; NSAIDS, steroids, or immune modulating medications.
Long-term effects
Inflammation of the cornea which can impair vision
If left untreated, severe asthma, sinus problems, headache and gastrointestinal problems may occur.
Must be diagnosed, treated, and monitored by an ophthamologist to avoid long-term vision loss. Retinal detachment and angle-closure glaucoma are possible.
Prevention
Avoid touching the eyes; wash hands; cover sneezes and coughs; don't share items such as makeup, towels, eyedrops
Keep windows closed; use an air purifier/dehumidifier, zippered "allergen-impermeable" covers on pillows and mattresses; wash bedding in hot water weekly.
Generally no prevention. Be aware of any underlying autoimmune conditions.
An ophthamologist can examine, diagnose and treat your eye condition. If you have pain, discomfort, changes in vision or color in the eye, consult an ophthamologist promptly.

An opthamologist can professionally examine, diagnose, and treat your eye conditions.

Don't take your vision into your own hands.

When Should I Consult an Opthamologist?

An opthamologist can professionally examine, diagnose, and medically treat your eyes if they are red, irritated, itchy, painful, crusty, and watering.
An opthamologist can professionally examine, diagnose, and medically treat your eyes if they are red, irritated, itchy, painful, crusty, and watering. | Source

When to Consult an Eye Doctor (Ophthamologist)

Seek An Opthamologist If You Have Any of These Symptoms
Especially If You ...
Physical changes to the eye, including crossed, bulging, or misaligned eyes, signs of infection (e.g., swelling, discharge, redness), unequal pupil size
Have a history of high intraoccular eye pressure
Pain in the eye
Have had a previous eye injury or are already experiencing eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, etc.
Changes in vision such as double vision, flashes of light, sudden spots, jagged lines or lightning streaks, wavy lines, haloes around lights
Are living with diabetes, HIV/AIDS, thyroid disease, rheumatological diseases such as lupus, or other immune compromising illnesses.
Loss of vision in one or both eyes, changes in color vision
Are of Hispanic or African descent
Changes in the field of vision, including shadows, black spots or blurriness, shadows, curtain-like loss of vision
Have a family history of glaucoma, cataract, macular degeneration, or retinal detachment
 
Are taking medications that can impact vision (e.g., Plaquanil, Prednisone, Ethambuto, many others)
 
Family members or others in close associate with you have the same symptoms (suggests contagion)
Canadian Ophthamological Society; American Academy of Ophthamology
Help your doctor diagnose your condition by providing a precise and accurate description of what you are experiencing.  This will help you get on the path to recovery.
Help your doctor diagnose your condition by providing a precise and accurate description of what you are experiencing. This will help you get on the path to recovery. | Source

4 Key Things to Tell Your Eye Doctor

When you call your eye doctor about red and irritated eyes, offer the following information so they can help triage you:

  • Symptoms: Redness in one eye or both? Pain or mere discomfort? Clear, yellow, green, and/or crusty discharge? Tearing? Itchiness? Changes in vision?
  • When your symptoms started
  • Anything you've tried, such as over-the-counter medications, compresses, eyedrops
  • Any associated medical conditions that you know of (e.g., autoimmune diseases)? Previous eye injury or conditions? History of high intraoccular pressure?

Providing a precise description of your problem will help you get an immediate appointment, if needed. It will assist the opthamologist in the diagnosis and treatment of your condition.

The world is looking better now!
The world is looking better now! | Source

Sources

8 Ways to Get Rid of Dust Mites - MedicineNet. (2011, April 11). Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=20276

Boyd, K. (2015, March 1). What Is Scleritis? - American Academy of Ophthalmology. Retrieved from https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-scleritis.

Centers for Disease Control. (2016, June 30). Conjunctivitis. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/index.html.

Dahl, A. A. (2017, April 7). Scleritis Treatment, Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/scleritis/article.htm#scleritis_facts.

Gans, R. (2016, November 9). Itchy, Red Eyes? How to Tell If It's Allergy or Infection. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2016/11/itchy-red-eyes-how-to-tell-if-its-allergy-or-infection/.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, February 26). Red eye causes - Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/red-eye/basics/causes/sym-20050748.

Medical Definition of Pinkeye. (2016, May 13). Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=11886.

National Institutes of Health. (2015, November). Facts About Pink Eye | National Eye Institute. Retrieved from https://nei.nih.gov/health/pinkeye/pink_facts.

Smith, J. R., Mackensen, F., & Rosenbaum, J. T. (2007). Therapy Insight: scleritis and its relationship to systemic autoimmune disease. Nature Clinical Practice Rheumatology, 3(4), 219-226. doi:10.1038/ncprheum0454

Surtenich, A. (2016, November). Eye discharge - causes, types, treatment. Retrieved from http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/eye-discharge.htm.

© 2017 FlourishAnyway

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image
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      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      Sha - That sounds unpleasant and I hope you do see your eye doctor. Even though it's probably eye strain, your doctor could probably provide some relief in the form of a more current prescription. Good luck! Glad to hear from you!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 5 months ago from Central Florida

      My eyes have been red for the last several weeks. They don't itch or ooze or feel scratchy. I attribute it to the computer screen I stare at all day, the fluorescent lights in my office and the fact that I haven't been to the eye doctor in 5 years.

      I put drops in my eyes after my shower and a few times a day, if needed. By the end of the work day, my eyes are quite red and often have a burning sensation.

      I've twisted off all but one of the bulbs in my office and plan on seeing an eye doctor soon. I'm thinking my prescription may have changed.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      Jo - I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment. Have a great week!

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 5 months ago from Tennessee

      This was very helpful, Flourish. Thanks for all the information.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      MsDora - I sure wish I could undo that scleritis diagnosis. I hadn't heard of it either and made the mistake that I was dealing with allergies or pink eye, something that didn't potentially affect my long term vision if untreated. I had no idea that my vision was at risk and red, watery, painful eyes were the "red flag" to get help immediately.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 5 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the information and the warnings. I don't think that I even heard the word 'scleritis' until now. Your presentation is clearly presented and very helpful.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      Devika - Thank you for your kind endorsement. I hope you are doing well.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Informative and well presented. This is important and a must read. You displayed with accurate photos and in detail.

    • profile image

      Devika 5 months ago

      A well informed hub. You explained in detail. I learned a lot here and you presented with pride. Important facts indeed!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      Debangee - Thank you for the compliment!

    • Debangee Mandal profile image

      DEBANGEE MANDAL 5 months ago from India

      Very informative .. nicely explained. Keep it up!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      Linda - I appreciate your concern and kind sentiments. Hope your week is fabuous.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing some great information, Flourish. This is an excellent and very helpful article. I hope your eye problems improve soon.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 months ago from South Africa

      This is an excellent, well-presented, and comprehensive article about eye diseases. The best I have ever read about the subject.

      I hope that whatever's wrong with your eyes will be fixed in no time.

      BTW, my eyes itched, burned and watered while reading this article. Lol!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      Larry - Thanks a bunch for reading. Have a great week. I look forward to reading more from you soon.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 6 months ago from Oklahoma

      Just wonderfully helpful. I know pink eye can be hard to distinguish.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      Ann - Eye trouble is awful, very limiting. I'll add occular herpes to the table. I'm glad your dad would approve. I've taken special care to use well-regarded sources.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      MizBejabbers - Oh, your son's situation sounds terrible. I hope your eye problems settle down. Spring is nice but for those who suffer allergies, it's difficult. Thanks for reading and adding your personal accounts.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 6 months ago

      Very comprehensive and well-written information. People should read and heed because our eyes are so important to our quality of life. Every spring and fall I run around with pink-eye symptoms, including right now. I don't think I could live without my Zaditor drops during allergy season. One of my sons had a grass allergy so bad that when he played in the grass during pollen season, the whites of his eyes would swell 1/4 inch beyond his irises. It was scary.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 6 months ago from SW England

      This is an excellent, informative hub with lots of sensible advice. Trouble with your eyes is one of the worst things.

      I would add optical shingles to this. I had it last year, it gave me red eyes, stabbing pains and blisters on my nose and forehead. Apparently it could have been a lot worse, which is another reason why one should go to seek treatment about any such worries.

      Optical shingles is when the 'herpes' virus from, say, chicken pox lies dormant in your system and breaks out for various reasons or sometimes without any particular reason at all. It must be treated very quickly or can cause permanent damage even to the brain.

      It's great that you've brought these matters to our attention. My father was an ophthalmic optometrist and I can hear him saying 'hear, hear' all the way through this article!

      Ann

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      Bill - That's funny. I'm sure there are songs related to the topic! Glad you don't deal with this issue. Scleritis hurts.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm so accustomed to your play list, I was, at first, trying to think of songs about red, irritated eyes. LOL True story! Now, back to reality...this has never been a problem for me; having said that, I'm sure my eyes will start itching tomorrow. :) Thanks in advance for the information.