Dry and pink eye share certain symptoms, making it difficult for someone to tell the difference between them. An eye doctor can make a proper diagnosis.

Symptoms of pink and dry eye include swelling, itching, or redness, which can also be due to allergies, infections, or dehydration. Although these two conditions have similar symptoms, they require different treatments. Understanding which of these conditions a person has can lead to more effective treatment.

This article explains how pink eye and dry eye differ. It also discusses how they affect the eyes and whether dry eye can lead to pink eye. It also explains how to treat both conditions and when to seek medical help.

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Dry eye occurs when a person’s tear glands are not producing sufficient tears to coat and lubricate the eye.

Pink eye is a condition that causes an infection or swelling of the conjunctiva, the thin transparent membrane covering the eyelid’s inner surface and the whites of the eyes. The proper medical name for pink eye is conjunctivitis. It can be the result of infections, allergies, or injury.

Pink eye and dry eye share some overlapping symptoms. However, there are key differences that can help a person identify which condition they have.

Learn more about what pink eye looks like.

SymptomPink EyeDry Eye
swelling of the conjunctiva or eyelidsx
excess tear productionxx
feeling as though something is in the eyex
burning or stingingxx
crust on eyelids or eyelashes upon wakingx
gritty feelingx
sensitivity to wind or smokex
light sensitivityx
blurred visionx
eye fatiguex
difficulty keeping eyes openx
discomfort when wearing, removing, or putting in contactsx
seeing doublex
eyelids stuck together upon wakingx

The main symptom of pink eye that does not usually occur with dry eye is itchiness. The main symptom present with dry eye that does not usually occur with pink eye is a gritty sensation in the eye. Dry eye can also be chronic, which generally does not occur with pink eye.

Learn more about what can cause sticky eyes.

Dry eye causes inflammation on the surface of the eye due to lack of moisture. This can lead to a stinging or burning sensation. A person’s eye may also feel tired or as though it has grit or sand in it.

Typically, mild cases of dry eye do not lead to serious complications. However, severe or persistent dry eye may lead to scarring or scratches to the cornea.

With pink eye, infection or swelling causes inflammation of the conjunctiva’s blood vessels, leading to the characteristic redness or pinkness. A person’s eyes may also itch and produce a discharge of pus or mucus.

Learn about the best eye drops for itchy eyes.

A severe case of dry eye can lead to a higher likelihood of developing pink eye.

Tears protect the eyes from inflammation and infection. So, if a person’s eyes do not produce enough tears, this can increase the likelihood of developing pink eye.

However, it is worth noting that one older study from 2014 suggests dry eye may not be a risk factor or indicator of a person’s chances of developing eye infections.

Learn more about eye infections here.

Despite their similar symptoms, treatments for the two conditions differ.

Dry eye

The treatments for dry eye include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops: Eye drops such as artificial tears or moisturizing gels and ointments can provide relief from symptoms.
  • Prescription medications: For more severe cases of dry eye, a doctor may prescribe medications, such as cyclosporine or lifitegrast, both of which can help the eyes produce more tears.
  • Lifestyle changes: This usually involves avoiding irritants or allergens, such as wind, smoke, too much screen time, or exposure to bright sunlight. Good sleep hygiene and proper hydration can also help.

Learn more about treatments for dry eye.

Pink eye

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Most cases of mild bacterial pink eye resolve within 2-5 days. However, it can take up to 2 weeks for it to clear completely.
  • If pink eye is due to a virus, it may take 2-3 weeks to completely clear.
  • Allergy medication and eye drops can help if pink eye is due to an allergy.

A healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment for bacterial pink eye to reduce the length of the infection, the risk of spreading pink eye to others, and the risk of complications.

It is also important with viral or bacterial pink eye for individuals to wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their eyes to prevent spreading the infection to others.

Learn about the different types of eye drops for pink eye.

A person should seek medical care if they experience the following:

  • reduced vision
  • pain in the eye
  • eye swelling or tenderness worsens
  • fever, which can indicate infection
  • symptoms occur after scratching the surface of the eye

If a person experiences symptoms of pink eye, they may want to consider speaking with a healthcare professional about treatment.

Below are some questions people frequently ask about dry eye and pink eye.

What other conditions can people mistake for pink eye?

Dry eye and pink eye have some overlapping symptoms and people may mistake one for the other. Other conditions a person may mistake for pink eye include:

What is the first day of pink eye like?

The first day of a pink eye infection is typically the most uncomfortable phase. The severity of symptoms tends to increase until around day 4 or 5 of infection.

Learn more about the early symptoms of pink eye.

Due to their similar symptoms, people may have trouble discerning whether they have dry eye or pink eye. If a person is unsure which condition they are experiencing, they can contact a doctor for a diagnosis.

Treatments for dry eye include OTC and prescription eye drops, as well as lifestyle and habit changes. Pink eye typically resolves without treatment within a few days to 2 weeks. However, antibiotics can relieve symptoms and help reduce the length of time the condition persists.

If a person experiences symptoms that affect their eyes, a healthcare professional can ensure they are not due to an underlying infection or condition.