Have you or your child ever woken up with a red, itchy, watery eye? Sometimes one or both eyes may feel glued stuck with what looks like an excess of ‘eye boogers.’ (You know, the combination of mucus, oil, skin cells, and other debris that can build up in your eye overnight.)

Sound familiar?

These are symptoms commonly associated with pink eye or conjunctivitis, one of the most common and treatable eye conditions in both children and adults. Despite our familiarity with this condition, 60 percent of patients across the United States are receiving the wrong treatment. This is because the cause of pink eye is often misdiagnosed, leading to the unnecessary prescription of antibiotic eye drops for a condition that will often clear up on its own.

60 percent of patients nationwide receive the wrong treatment for pink eye.

This misdiagnosis is so common for three main reasons:

  1. There are three different causes of pink eye, each requiring a different treatment.
  2. These unique causes and their symptoms aren’t as familiar to a general practitioner as they are to an eye care professional.
  3. Most patients seek medical help from their general practitioner for eye-related conditions, not their optometrist.


Why You Should See Your Optometrist for Pink Eye Treatment

This is a common misconception: Your optometrist is viewed primarily as the doctor you see for your annual eye exam or an updated prescription for glasses or contacts. Your general practitioner or family doctor is viewed as the go-to doctor for everything else.

Related post: Common Eye Emergencies and How to Protect Your Vision

An optometrist, however, specializes in eye health and can more accurately diagnose a condition relating to your eye than a general practitioner. This is important to understand as an incorrect prescription can cost more than money. For example, taking prescription antibiotic eye drops for a strain of pink eye that would otherwise clear up on its own, can actually prolong or worsen the infection.

The 3 Causes of Pink Eye

Pink eye is caused by either a bacterial, viral, or allergic conjunctivitis. Each case requires a different treatment and has slightly different symptoms. Here’s what you need to know about each:

Viral conjunctivitis


Red, itchy, watery eye or eyes and highly contagious.


This type of infection usually clears up on its own in 7-14 days but contacting your eye doctor immediately can ensure the symptoms aren’t related to another less benign eye condition. Applying a cold, wet washcloth to the infected eye(s) several times a day can help relieve symptoms.

Bacterial conjunctivitis


Red, itchy, watery eye or eyes combined with a sticky yellow discharge from the corner of the eye. This discharge can glue the lids shut after sleeping but is easily removed using a damp washcloth. (This discharge is not the same as ‘eye boogers’ or ‘sleep in your eyes’ which is normal and not a sign of an infection.) Contagious by direct contact with a hand or item that touched the eye.


Contact your optometrist for an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Often, your eye doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments for this type of pink eye but sometimes it can clear up on its own.

Allergic conjunctivitis


Red, watery, itchy or burning eyes and often accompanied by nasal congestion and light sensitivity. Both eyes are affected. Not contagious.


Prevention works best. If you know you’re prone to hay fever or other types of allergies, start taking allergy medications before you typically experience the worst symptoms (often during the spring season). Starting an allergy medication once symptoms begin will help relieve this type of conjunctivitis but the most effective treatment is to see your eye doctor before allergy season and ask for a custom treatment plan for your particular symptoms.

Related post: How to Get Relief from Eye Allergies

Always remove contact lenses when experiencing any of the above symptoms and wear glasses until the symptoms clear.

Even though most forms of pink eye heal will heal on their own, you should always contact your eye doctor when experiencing prolonged eye discomfort, redness, or other abnormal symptoms.


Ten Tips for Pink Eye Prevention

The best treatment for pink eye is prevention, especially if you have young children in school where cases of pink eye are common and can spread easily.

Here are ten tips to keep your eyes and your children’s eyes clear of conjunctivitis courtesy of AllAboutVision.com:

  1. Never share personal items such as washcloths, hand towels or tissues.
  2. Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoid rubbing or touching your eyes.
  3. Never (EVER) share your color contact lenses or special effect contacts with friends.
  4. Wash your hands frequently, especially when spending time at school or in other public places.
  5. Keep a hand disinfectant (e.g., Purell) handy and use it frequently.
  6. Frequently clean surfaces such as countertops, bathroom vanities, faucet handles and shared phones with an appropriate antiseptic cleaner.
  7. If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies, ask your doctor what can be done to minimize your symptoms before they begin.
  8. If you wear contacts, be sure to follow your eye doctor’s instructions for lens care and replacement, and use contact lens solutions properly or consider switching to daily disposable contacts.
  9. When swimming, wear swim goggles to protect yourself from bacteria and other microorganisms in the water that can cause conjunctivitis.
  10. Before showering, using a hot tub or being in water of any kind, remove your contact lenses to avoid trapping bacteria between your eyes and the lenses.


Even when following all the above tips, you or your child may still contract pink eye. Because both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious, it’s important to try your best to avoid spreading the infection by always washing your hands after touching your eye, frequently cleaning surfaces, and ensuring that no one else uses your washcloth or hand towel.

If your child contracts pink eye, notify the teacher at school so that he or she can make sure to sanitize the classroom to avoid spreading the infection to other students. Keep your child at home until your eye doctor says the pink eye is no longer contagious.  

Pink eye won’t cause permanent damage to your vision, but sometimes your symptoms could be caused by another eye condition with more serious consequences. Your eye doctor can accurately diagnose your symptoms and provide the proper treatment. The bottom line is, if you suspect an infection, contact your eye doctor immediately for medical advice.