Zocdoc Answers

Medical questions & health advice by board certified doctors

"What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?"


This morning, my girlfriend's eye was seriously bloodshot and inflamed-looking. Last night we were by a campfire, so she thinks it's just irritation from the smoke. But how would we know if this was conjunctivitis? I've heard it's contagious, so I want to be extra careful.


Questions about a painful or red eye can be addressed by a primary care physician. Depending on the circumstances, an ophthalmologist may also be consulted. Conjunctivitis--or inflammation of the outermost surface of the eye--can be caused by many different things, including viruses, bacteria, or allergic irritants.

See a doctor who can help

Find a Ophthalmologists near you

Regardless of the cause, conjunctivitis can be painful and cause a watery eye, although one's vision is not otherwise affected. Viral conjunctivitis is often associated with other symptoms of a viral upper respiratory infection such as cough, sneezing, or runny nose. The normal 'whites' of the eye may become generally pinkish in hue. Typically this kind of infection starts in one eye but can easily spread to the other. It is also contagious from person to person without careful handwashing. In contrast to viral infection, bacterial conjunctivitis often causes an opaque or yellowish discharge from the eyes that may even cause the eyelids to stick together, especially after sleeping. Eyes often feel gritty or scratchy and affected individuals may even feel that they have something 'stuck' inside their eye. These infections also typically start in one eye. Finally chemical irritation to the eye--such as that caused by smoke--can also cause irritation and redness. If the chemical or toxin was diffusely present in the environment, both eyes will typically be affected. Overall, one should also practice good hand hygiene, especially when around someone who may be sick. In addition, any changes in vision or pain/irritation of the eye should always be evaluated by a physician. Acute changes in vision may be more appropriately addressed in the emergency room.

Zocdoc Answers is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor (in the United States) 911 immediately. Always seek the advice of your doctor before starting or changing treatment. Medical professionals who provide responses to health-related questions are intended third party beneficiaries with certain rights under Zocdoc’s Terms of Service.