Eye Doctors Caution Pink Eye Could Be a Less Common COVID-19 Symptom

·3 min read
Illustration of two eyes. The one on the left is clear and the one on the right has pink eye
Illustration of two eyes. The one on the left is clear and the one on the right has pink eye

A new alert issued Wednesday by the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggested pink eye may be a symptom, though rare, of COVID-19.

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2) is a virus that primarily causes respiratory infection, with symptoms such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Emerging research also indicated that the coronavirus may cause digestive symptoms like diarrhea, nausea and vomiting in about 20% of patients. Other reports found that a sudden loss of smell or taste can be a COVID-19 symptom as well.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology issued its new guidance about pink eye for ophthalmologists after several preliminary studies and anecdotal reports found COVID-19 patients presented with pink eye. Viral pink eye (or conjunctivitis) causes redness in the whites of your eyes, a burning sensation and a watery discharge. It’s highly contagious and caused by swelling and redness due to inflammation. Pink eye is known to occur with other types of viral infections, including the common cold.

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One small study of patients in China with COVID-19 found one out of the 30 patients included in the study had pink eye. Notably, researchers found traces of the SARS-CoV2 virus in this one patient’s eye secretions, but not the 29 patients without pink eye. The American Academy of Ophthalmology clarified in another study that COVID-19 infection through tears, however, is unlikely. Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a small percentage of COVID-19 patients — almost 1% — presented with pink eye as a symptom.

Though pink eye seems to be rare among COVID-19 patients, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advised its members to take extra precautions when patients present with pink eye, especially if they have other COVID-19 symptoms or recently visited an area with a major outbreak. The organization also told eye doctors to be sure to thoroughly sterilize and to remind patients to avoid touching their eyes and be vigilant about their potential symptoms.

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“While it appears conjunctivitis is an uncommon event as it relates to COVID-19, other forms of conjunctivitis are common,” the Academy wrote in its alert. “Affected patients frequently present to eye clinics or emergency departments. That increases the likelihood ophthalmologists may be the first providers to evaluate patients possibly infected with COVID-19.”

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