The Difference Between Pink Eye and a Stye

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
November 9, 2021

Your eyes are a crucial part of your daily functioning, but they are also vulnerable to irritation and infection.

If you’re experiencing redness, swelling, or pain in one or both eyes, you may be wondering what’s wrong.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, there are two common causes, and one of them may be the culprit: pink eye or a stye. 

While pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is caused by an infection or irritation in the lining of the eye and eyelid, a stye happens when the oil-producing tear duct of the eye is infected.

Both can result in severe irritation, but the good news is, neither condition is likely to result in major complications and they can usually be treated at home without antibiotics.

Read on to learn more about the difference between pink eye and a stye, symptoms of each, how they’re diagnosed, and how they’re treated. 

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What’s the Difference Between Pink Eye and a Stye?

Both pink eye and styes can result in pain and irritation in your eye, but they have different causes and some different symptoms that can help you tell them apart.

Pink eye is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin lining around the white part of your eyeball and inner eyelid.

It can occur due to allergies or irritants, as well as a viral or bacterial infection.

A stye, on the other hand — also known as a hordeolum — happens when a person’s eyelid gland gets blocked.

It causes a painful, pimple-like bump on the outer or inner eyelid.

Symptoms 

While pink eye and styes both affect the eyes, they each have distinct symptoms. 

Pink Eye Symptoms

The most common symptoms of pink eye include: 

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eye
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva (the lining of the white part of the eye and inside of the eyelid)
  • Increased tear production
  • Itching, irritation, and/or burning
  • Discharge, either pus or mucus
  • Crusty eyelids or lashes in the morning 
  • An urge to rub the eyes
  • A feeling that there’s something in your eye

It’s important to note that pink eye usually causes eye redness and irritation, but the symptoms may vary based on what’s causing pink eye. 

Stye Symptoms 

Stye symptoms include: 

  • A painful red bump on the edge of the eyelid, near the eyelashes
  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Soreness and itching
  • Crusting around the eyelid
  • Sensitivity to light 
  • Increased tear production
  • A feeling that there’s something in your eye

Causes

Pink eye and styes can result in many bothersome symptoms, and they can vary in severity.

However, they stem from different causes. 

Pink Eye Causes

There are a few types of pink eye, and each one can cause unique symptoms and require unique treatment. 

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Bacterial pink eye is caused by a bacterial infection in the conjunctiva, or the thin lining of the eyeball and inner eyelids. 
  • Viral conjunctivitis: Viral pink eye is caused by a viral infection. It may be accompanied by a viral illness, such as the common cold or an ear infection. 
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Allergic pink eye occurs when an external allergen, such as pet dander or pollen, irritates the conjunctiva. 
  • Other types of pink eye: In babies, pink eye can happen due to a blocked tear duct. Other irritants, such as laundry detergent or soap, can also lead to pink eye.

Stye Causes

A stye is caused by a bacterial infection in the eyelid glands that line the eyelids and produce oil to lubricate the eye.

Typically, styes form when this gland gets blocked and later becomes infected by bacteria. 

Diagnosing Pink Eye and Styes

If your eye or eyes are bothering you, a health care provider will ask about your symptoms, how long they’ve been going on, and how severe they are.

While both pink eye and styes can lead to pain and irritation in the eye, it’s relatively easy for a medical provider to distinguish between the two. 

If you have pink eye, your health care provider will determine the cause and treat you accordingly.

Often, styes resolve on their own.

But if your stye is getting worse or not going away without treatment, talk to a health care provider or chat with a K doctor for recommendations.

Treatment 

Because they cause different symptoms, pink eye and styes may need to be treated differently.

In some cases, these conditions don’t need treatment at all. 

Pink Eye Treatment 

Viral pink eye usually goes away on its own in a week or two.

In severe cases, such as viral conjunctivitis caused by varicella, a doctor may treat viral pink eye with antiviral drugs.

Antibiotics, however, won’t help with viral pink eye.  

Bacterial pink eye often improves within a few days, but it may not completely resolve on its own for a few weeks.

If you have bacterial pink eye that doesn’t resolve, your health care provider might prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment to stave off the infection. 

Allergic or irritation-related pink eye is best treated by removing what’s irritating the eyes.

Your health care provider may also recommend an antihistamine or eye drops to treat your allergy symptoms. 

A wet compress may also help to improve symptoms.

To make your own compress at home, wet a clean, lint-free cloth with cool or warm water (whatever feels best) and place it on your affected eye.

If you only have pink eye in one eye, do not use the same cloth to touch your other eye. 

Stye Treatment

Usually, a stye will go away on its own within a week or two.

If a stye isn’t improving or is getting worse without treatment, a health care provider may recommend medication, such as antibiotics.

In some cases, eye doctors drain styes by making a small incision in the area after numbing it with local anesthesia. 

You can also improve stye symptoms with a warm compress.

Try applying a clean, warm washcloth to the affected eyelid for 10-15 minutes. 

Preventing Pink Eye and Styes

It’s not always possible to prevent pink eye and styes, but certain practices can reduce your likelihood of getting them. 

Preventing Pink Eye

Infectious forms of pink eye are highly contagious.

To prevent pink eye, wash your hands before and after touching your eyes.

Avoid sharing eye makeup, face towels, or washcloths with others to prevent the spread of infection.

If you have pink eye in one eye, do not use the same washcloth or towel on both eyes, and don’t touch your other eye after touching the infected one.

Avoid wearing contacts until your pink eye resolves and do not re-use the pair you were wearing when you developed pink eye to avoid re-infection. 

Launder your pillow case and towels after your symptoms improve to avoid getting pink eye again.

If you are prone to allergies, avoid allergens that could cause you to get pink eye, and ask your doctor about how antihistamines may help you prevent pink eye symptoms. 

Preventing Styes

Styes are not contagious.

The best way to prevent a stye is to wash your hands with soap and water frequently — especially when you need to touch your eyes.

For example, always thoroughly wash your hands before putting in or taking out contact lenses or rubbing your eyes.

It can also help to take proper care of your contact lenses to ensure hygiene.

Similarly, throw away eye creams or makeup after a few months, and don’t share your eye products with others.

Risk of Pink Eye and Styes

In many cases, both pink eye and styes don’t pose serious medical risks.

The greatest risk of pink eye is spreading it to another person.

Treatment can help prevent the spread if the pink eye is bacterial.

Very rarely, a person’s cornea can become inflamed, which can cause vision problems.

Styes usually resolve on their own without major issues.

In severe styes that won’t go away, an eye doctor may need to drain the stye to improve your symptoms.

If a stye is left untreated, it can turn into a chalazion, or a slow-growing cyst in the oil-producing gland of the eyelid. 

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When to See a Doctor

If your eye or eyes are bothering you, it can’t hurt to see a health care provider who can diagnose and treat the problem.

If your symptoms get worse, you’re not improving with treatment, your vision changes, or you’re experiencing severe pain in your eye, reach out to a health care provider right away. 

How K Health Can Help

If you’re not sure what’s causing your eyes to be red or feel irritated, talk to a doctor.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a stye become pink eye?
A stye is the result of an infection in the oil gland of the eyelid, while pink eye happens when the thin lining of the eye or eyelid becomes infected or irritated. Someone could have both at the same time, but a stye does not lead to pink eye.
Are styes contagious?
Styes are caused by a bacterial infection in the oil-producing gland of the eyelid, but they are not contagious and don’t spread from person to person.
Will pink eye or styes go away on their own?
Both pink eye and styes can resolve on their own without treatment. However, if your pink eye or stye is not improving or getting worse after a week or two, it’s important to see a health care provider, who can diagnose and treat your concern.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.