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How to Tell the Difference Between Pink Eye & Styes

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A close-up of a boy with irritated, red eyes.

When eye redness causes changes to your vision or eye health, it’s best to visit your eye doctor to determine the underlying condition and the cause. Most people may assume redness, inflammation, and discomfort equal pink eyes.

But, another eye condition called a stye can present with similar symptoms early on. So, how do you tell the difference? 

While both pink eye and styes can cause redness, irritation, and discomfort, only styes are characterized by a red lump or bump on the eyelid

An eye exam can help distinguish pink eye and styes and helps your eye doctor determine the appropriate treatment and care.

Understanding Pink Eye & Styes

Although pink eyes and styes share some similar symptoms, there are distinct differences between the 2 conditions. Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane lining the eyelid and the eyeball. 

Styes are red, painful lumps on the eyelid and look like a pimple or a boil. They usually form at the edge of the eyelid but can also occur on the inner part of the eyelid. 

Causes of Pink Eye & Styes

With pink eye, the small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become swollen, irritated, and red, making them more visible. There are several causes of pink eye, including:

  • Viral infection
  • Bacterial infection
  • Allergies
  • Irritants (contact lenses)
  • Environmental toxins, such as smoke or dust
  • Foreign bodies that can irritate the lining of your eyelid, such as dirt or an eyelash

A stye results from a bacterial infection of the oil glands in the eyelid, commonly staphylococcus. Certain activities can increase your risk of developing styes by introducing bacteria to your eye. These can include:

  • Touching your eyes with unwashed hands
  • Poor contact lens hygiene
  • Extending the life of disposable contact lenses
  • Sleeping with makeup
  • Using old or expired cosmetics
  • Frequent eye rubbing
  • Blepharitis (chronic inflammation along the edge of the eyelid)
  • Rosacea (a skin condition characterized by facial redness)
A close-up of a stye on an eyelid

Symptoms of Pink Eye & Styes

Symptoms go a long way to help determine the type of eye infection you have. Common symptoms of pink eye can include:

  • Eyelid inflammation
  • Redness on your eyelid or inner eyelid
  • Redness on the whites of the eye
  • Blurry vision
  • Itching
  • Tearing or pus around your eye
  • Gritty feeling
  • Sensitivity to light

Symptoms of an eyelid stye can include:

  • Raised, red lump on your eyelid
  • Pain in or around your eye
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Tearing or eye pus 
  • Redness
  • Gritty feeling 

See your eye doctor if your symptoms don’t improve in 48 hours or if you experience the following:

  • Impaired vision
  • Green or yellow-coloured pus
  • Change in colour apart from pink or red areas

Children younger than 5 years old should see a doctor if they experience any kind of eye infection.  

Treatment for Pink Eye & Styes

The treatment for pink eye depends on the cause. Viral pink eye and styes can go away on their own; however, treatment may be necessary if symptoms persist or it affects your vision.  

Mild cases of pink eye last for a few days to 2 weeks, but because pink eye is contagious, you should avoid contact with others while you have symptoms. Treatment methods for pink eye include:

  • Cold compress to reduce inflammation
  • Artificial tears
  • Antibiotics for bacterial conjunctivitis
  • Antihistamine eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis
  • Wash your hands before touching your eyes
  • Wash bedding to avoid reinfecting your eyes
  • Avoiding contact lenses and makeup until symptoms are gone

Styes don’t usually require treatment, but home remedies such as a clean, warm compress can help speed healing. You can apply a warm compress several times daily for 15 minutes. Don’t try to squeeze or pop the stye. 

If a stye doesn’t go away on its own, treatment for a stye can include methods to clear the blockage from your infected oil gland:

  • Antibiotic eye drops or topical cream
  • Drain a stye to remove it (done by an eye doctor to avoid permanent damage to your vision)

Preventing Pink Eye & Styes

Hygiene is key in preventing eye infections such as pink eye and styes. Here are a few tips on hand, eye, and product hygiene to help avoid getting pink eye and styes:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly
  • Avoid rubbing or touching your eyes
  • Remove makeup before sleeping
  • Replace makeup products and tools often
  • Don’t share items that come in direct contact with your eyes, such as makeup products, towels, or washcloths
  • Wash your face with warm water at the end of each day
  • Wash your bedding frequently
  • Maintain good contact lens care, and don’t wear contacts past their expiration date

Your Solution for Clear & Healthy Vision

While pink eye and styes can cause discomfort, irritation, and redness, treatment can significantly reduce the time it takes for your symptoms to resolve. If you notice your vision is affected or symptoms worsen, and you’re unsure what eye condition it is, book an appointment with Dr. Bishop & Associates to receive the right treatment.

Written by Donald Bishop

In addition to his Doctor of Optometry from the University of Waterloo, Dr. Bishop also earned his pharmacological therapeutics certification from Northeastern State University of Oklahoma. He graduated in 1983 and has been practising optometry in Alberta ever since.

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