Pink eye and corneal abrasions are two separate conditions with different causes and treatments.

Conjunctivitis (pink eye) involves an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the white part of your eye. A corneal abrasion, or scratch, consists of damage to the cornea.

While these are two different conditions with separate causes, some of the symptoms can be similar. However, the treatments are not the same.

Learn how to tell the difference between pink eye and a corneal abrasion and what types of treatments may be available for each.

Pink eye and corneal abrasion share similar symptoms, including vision changes and pain. Here are some of the distinguishing signs of each:

Pink eye symptoms

As the name suggests, pink eye is characterized by a pink color of the whites of your eyes that may also be red. Other common symptoms of pink eye include itchiness, swelling, and discharge.

Sometimes, pink eye can cause:

  • temporary vision changes, such as blurriness or light sensitivities
  • eye pain or soreness
  • burning

Corneal abrasion symptoms

Pain and discomfort are more marked with corneal abrasions. Depending on the underlying cause, the pain can range from mild to severe, and it may gradually worsen.

While the white part of the affected eye may also be pink or red, this usually occurs after rubbing it out of discomfort and not from the injury itself. Corneal abrasions can also cause your eyes to water.

Vision problems are also common with corneal abrasions. These include sensitivity to light and blurry vision.

Various medical conditions can cause pink eye, while injuries usually result in corneal abrasions.

Pink eye causes

Pink eye may be viral, bacterial, or allergic. Both viral and bacterial cases are highly contagious. Discharge from viral pink eye tends to be watery, while bacterial versions are thicker and pus-like.

Allergic pink eye is caused by allergens and is not contagious. Allergic pink eye tends to be itchier than the other two types.

Corneal abrasion causes

Corneal abrasions are caused by an injury that scratches your cornea. This can be attributed to various injuries, with some common examples including:

  • an object that hits your eye
  • sports injuries
  • scratches from fingernails
  • scratches from small objects, such as makeup brushes
  • using damaged contact lenses
  • occupational hazards, such as working with sharp objects
  • outdoor hazards, such as eye contact with tree branches, dirt, or sand

If you think you may have either pink eye or a corneal abrasion, it’s recommended to see a doctor for an evaluation. They can determine the underlying cause of your symptoms and recommend appropriate treatments.

Any significant eye injury that causes severe pain and vision problems should be checked by an eye doctor right away.

A doctor may diagnose pink eye based on the signs and symptoms. But if they’re uncertain whether your case is caused by a virus or bacteria, they may prescribe a topical antibiotic.

For a corneal abrasion diagnosis, an eye doctor will determine the extent of the injury with a tool called biomicroscope. This can also show a doctor whether there’s any foreign material stuck in your eye.

Treatment for pink eye and corneal abrasions aims to reduce symptoms while correcting the underlying problem. Here’s what this consists of for each:

Pink eye treatment

Pink eye treatment is based on the underlying cause, such as antibiotics for bacterial cases and allergy eye drops for allergic forms.

Learn more about treating pink eye.

Corneal abrasion treatment

Minor corneal abrasions may resolve on their own in 24–48 hours. Healthcare professionals may recommend artificial tears or topical antibiotic ointments to reduce discomfort.

If any objects are still stuck in the cornea, an eye doctor will remove them.

Learn more about treating corneal abrasions.

You can help prevent pink eye by:

  • avoiding touching your eyes
  • washing your hands often
  • using clean towels for your face
  • managing allergies (for allergic types only)

You may also prevent injuries that can lead to corneal abrasion by:

  • avoiding touching or rubbing your eyes
  • wearing sports goggles during athletic activities
  • wearing protective goggles or sunglasses
  • calling an eye doctor if your contact lenses cause discomfort

Here are some common questions about pink eye and corneal abrasions.

How do you tell the difference between pink eye and a scratched cornea?

A scratched cornea is typically more painful than pink eye, which tends to be itchier, more sore, and more uncomfortable. Also, while both can cause eye wateriness, pink eye is more likely to cause discharge. Pink eye may also develop in both eyes.

Does pink eye feel like something is in your eye?

Sometimes, pink eye can cause sensations of grittiness, or like something is stuck in your eye. You’ll likely experience this along with other key signs, such as redness.

How do you rule out a corneal abrasion?

Only a doctor can rule out a corneal abrasion. They will use a specialized blue light to see your cornea and look for damages or determine whether anything is still stuck in your eye.

Can you use pink eye drops for a scratched cornea?

Pink eye drops do not work for a corneal abrasion. Such medications help treat inflammation in the conjunctiva, which is a separate part of your eye. The only exception is antibiotic eye drops, which is used to prevent infection in cases of corneal abrasion.

While some of the symptoms may be similar, keep in mind that pink eye is more likely to cause discharge, while a corneal abrasion may cause more severe pain.

Consider reaching out to an eye doctor about any eye-related concerns you may have.