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Pink Eye vs. Stye: What Are the Differences?

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A young man holding a tissue in his left hand and rubbing his right eye in irritation with his right hand

Pink eye and stye are 2 common eye conditions that can cause discomfort. They may share similar symptoms, such as eye irritation and redness, making an eye exam essential to tell the difference.

Although both pink eye and styes can give you redness, irritation, and an uncomfortable feeling in your eye, styes are often accompanied by a noticeable red lump or bump on your eyelid. Your optometrist can start treatments and help you find relief once they uncover what’s affecting your eyes.

Why Do People Confuse Pink Eye & Stye?

While pink eye and styes might seem alike initially, they can be pretty different in cause and symptoms. Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, occurs when the eyelid and eyeball’s transparent membrane becomes inflamed.

On the other hand, styes are red, painful lumps that pop up on your eyelid, resembling a pimple or a boil. They typically appear at the eyelid’s edge but can also develop on the inner eyelid.

And, they each have different causes.

Causes of Pink Eye

Pink eye has a few different variants, each with its own causes. The 3 types of conjunctivitis are:

  • Infectious conjunctivitis is caused by exposure to bacteria or viruses, is highly contagious, and can spread easily to others without proper hygiene and care
  • Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by allergies such as pollen, dust, pet dander, or mould
  • Chemical conjunctivitis is caused by irritants such as air pollution, chemicals, or chlorine

Causes of Stye

A stye occurs when bacteria, commonly staphylococcus, infect the oil glands in your eyelid. Several activities can increase your risk of developing styes by introducing bacteria to your eye. These activities include:

  • Frequently rubbing your eyes with unwashed hands
  • Neglecting proper contact lens hygiene
  • Overwearing disposable contact lenses
  • Sleeping with makeup on
  • Using old or expired cosmetics

Additionally, allergies and rosacea can both irritate the eyes and cause people to rub or itch the area, opening the possibility for infection. Other common issues that may increase your risk of developing styes include:

Pink Eye Symptoms

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a common eye infection that affects the conjunctiva—the thin, transparent membrane that covers the white part of the eyes and the eyelids’ inner surface.

Symptoms of pink eye include:

  • Eye redness or pinkness
  • Itching or burning
  • Irritation
  • Watery or sticky discharge
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Light sensitivity

Treatment for pink eye depends on the cause. Bacterial conjunctivitis is typically treated with antibiotics, while viral conjunctivitis usually clears up on its own within a few days. A doctor might suggest antihistamines for allergic pink eye.

Stye Symptoms

A stye, medically known as a hordeolum, is a small, painful bump that appears on the edge of the eyelid. It occurs when the glands in the eyelid become blocked and infected, usually by bacteria. Styes can develop on the upper or lower eyelid and may occur multiple times.

There are 2 types of styes. External styes develop in an eyelash follicle and are more common. In contrast, internal styes begin in oil glands and can be much more uncomfortable as they push against the eye.

In addition to this swollen red lump, symptoms of a stye can include:

  • Yellowish discharge
  • Eyelid tenderness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Grittiness
  • Feeling like there’s something in the eye
  • Excessive eye watering
  • A crust around the eyelid

Treatment for a stye includes applying warm compresses several times a day to the affected eyelid. They could clear up on their own in about a week, but it’s crucial you don’t pop a stye, or it could spread the infection. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection and reduce inflammation.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Pink eye or sty, an eye infection is still an eye infection and should be treated with care. Signs that it may be time to visit your local eye doctor include:

  • Symptoms that don’t improve after 48 hours
  • The infected person is under 5 years old
  • Pus from the infected eye is yellow or green
  • The white of your eye changes to light red or pink
A woman looking into a piece of optometry equipment as her male optometrist performs an eye exam

Knowledge is Health Power

Pink eye and stye are 2 common eye conditions that can be easily confused. But while they share some symptoms, understanding their differences is essential to receiving appropriate treatment.So whether you’re experiencing pink eye or a stye, Milton Eye & Vision Care can diagnose your symptoms and help you get the treatment you need. Keep your hands clean and your eyes clear, and book your eye exam with us!

Written by Dr. Ronald Nicholas Strohan

Dr. Strohan has been an integrative optometrist in the Milton, Ontario area for over 40 years and has always stayed true to his philosophy of focusing on excellent patient eye care. He has studied behavioural optometry for more than 4 decades and is passionate about providing clear vision for patients of all ages. He takes pride in offering the latest eye care products and advancements in vision therapy.
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