Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) vs. Styes: What’s the difference?
Pink eye and styes are very common eye infections with similar symptoms but different causes. It can be challenging to tell the difference between the two, especially when they first start.
The more you know about each, though, the better you will understand their cause, and the easier it will be to tell the difference between a stye and pink eye. Consider some information about these infections, what causes them, and the best treatment options.
Causes of Pink Eye Vs Styes
Since these conditions can seem similar, the best way to tell them apart is to have a good understanding of the different causes.
Causes of Pink Eye
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva or the thin clear tissue covering the white part of the eye. The most common causes of pink eye include1:
- Infection caused by bacteria or viruses
- Dry eyes
- It can also be a symptom of allergies
- Irritation from rubbing the eye
- Or an environmental irritant like smoke.
Pink eye is a condition you see a lot in children. Children get it more because it is highly contagious when caused by bacteria or a virus. Kids are more likely to rub their eyes and spread them to other children2. Viral conjunctivitis may also be secondary symptoms to a cold or upper respiratory problem3. Kids tend to wipe their noses with their hands and then rub their eyes, introducing the bacteria or virus to the conjunctiva.
Causes of a Stye
In deciding conjunctivitis vs stye, there is one key sign to watch for – a red lump on the edge of the eyelid. This is the primary difference between stye and pink eye. A stye is caused by a bacterial infection of the oil glands on your eyelids Styes may look similar to a pimple but on the edge of the eyelid. You can experience a stye of the outside edge of the eyelid or inside next to the eye globe.4
Styes can occur from rubbing your eyes too much or using products near the eyelid, causing irritation and transfer of bacteria that leads to an infection6.
What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye and a Stye?
Things get confusing because they can produce very similar symptoms with a few exceptions. The main difference is, with a stye, a hard lump appears on the eyelid. This is not something you will see with conjunctivitis alone.
Symptoms of Pink Eye
The symptoms of pink eye will include1,5:
- Inflammation on the eyelid
- Pus or drainage around the eye
- Redness in the white of the eye or on the eyelid
- Mild pain in the affected eye
What you don’t see on that list is a hard bump on the edge of the eyelid.
Symptoms of a Stye
With a stye, you may experience4,6:
- A red lump on the edge of the eyelid
- A swollen eyelid
- Pain on the eyelid
A stye will usually be close to recovery after 3 days, which is when it will break open and drain – healing in a week or so7.
The Difference in Treatment for Pink Eye Vs. Styes
Treatment for both conditions starts at home.
Treatment for Pink Eye
One of the key differences between these two infections is that pink eye can be very contagious, so it is important to stay home if you have it until the symptoms improve. While you’re there, you can follow the below home treatments1:
- Regardless of the cause, applying a cold or warm compress to the eye can ease some of the irritation and pain. Make sure to use a clean compress each time to avoid adding to the problem.
- Clean the drainage from the eye several times a day. Use a clean, wet cloth and wipe from the inside of the eye near the nose to the outside. Use a clean cloth every time.
Finally, applying an antibiotic like Polysporin® Eye & Ear Drops can help for bacterial pink eye. Apply 1-2 drops to the affected eye 4 times a day for 7-10 days. Make sure when applying the drops that the tips of the container do not touch your eye.
If the irritation continues after seven days or does not seem to be getting any better, stop using the product and see your primary care provider.
Treatment for a Stye
Home treatment for a stye is very similar. Apply a warm compress to the eye for 10 minutes up to six times a day. Use a clean cloth each time and wash your hands before and after the application4.
Difference in Treatments for Pink Eye vs Styes
For both of these eye problems, avoid rubbing or touching your eyes. Also, do not wear makeup or contact lenses until the condition clears up1,4. If there is no improvement with home treatment, you need to see your primary care provider. Styes are not contagious, though, so you don’t have to stay out of school or work if you have one.
As with most medical problems, the best treatment is prevention. Below are some tips to keep in mind1,4:
- It’s important to wash any makeup off your eye before going to bed, especially if you are prone to styes or pink eye. Sleeping with your makeup on can clog the follicles or cause irritation.
- Be sure to replace any makeup, eye drops, or contact lens solution every six months to ensure it doesn’t become contaminated with bacteria.
- Get in the habit of washing your hands before and after touching your eyes or nose.
- Avoid sharing towels and washcloths with others, too.
- Take whatever allergy medication the doctor prescribes to prevent allergic conjunctivitis and avoid environmental irritants like smoke. If your eyes feel itchy or sore after going outside or exposure, try washing them out with clean water.
It is easy to confuse a stye and pink eye. Keep in mind that if there is a hard bump on the edge of the eyelid, chances are the problem is a stye. If there is no bump, but you see redness in the white area of the eye, you most likely have pink eye. Anytime you have trouble seeing or if the condition does not clear up despite home treatment, then visit your healthcare provider.