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Can COVID-19 cause pink eye?

Conjunctivitis is a main symptom of the latest COVID Omicron sub-variant, XBB.1.16, dubbed 'Arcturus.' But that doesn't mean the rise in cases is related.

CLEVELAND — We'd love to blame COVID for everything, and to an extent it's possible that the coronavirus may be responsible for some cases of pink eye.  

Pink eye is an inflammation of the transparent membrane that lines the eyelid and eyeball and causes the whites of the eyes to appear reddish or pink. It's usually caused by a viral infection, and yes, it's a main symptom of the latest COVID variant XBB.1.16, dubbed "arcturus."

However, according to the Ohio Department of Health's most recent sampling of Ohio's circulating variants, XBB 1.16 is only 12% of COVID cases.

"It's a random sampling and there's no way to know if any of those people had pink eye," said Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital infectious disease specialist, Amy Edwards, MD. 

Also, most pink eye cases are dealt with at home and those who do see a healthcare provider for treatment aren't being tested for COVID. 

What the pandemic did do is shift our viral seasons. Pink eye is usually seen more in the winter months, but now we're seeing it and other typical fall and winter illnesses earlier.

"We're probably seeing more pink eye because there are a lot of circulating respiratory viruses and most of them can cause pink eye," said Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital infectious disease specialist, Camille Sabella, MD. 

He also said it's very difficult to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections and another cause could be allergies.  

According to the CDC: 

Symptoms of conjunctivitis

(pink eye) can include

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eye(s)
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva (the thin layer that lines the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid) and/or eyelids
  • Increased tear production
  • Feeling like a foreign body is in the eye(s) or an urge to rub the eye(s)
  • Itching, irritation, and/or burning
  • Discharge (pus or mucus)
  • Crusting of eyelids or lashes, especially in the morning
  • Contact lenses that feel uncomfortable and/or do not stay in place on the eye

Depending on the cause, other symptoms may occur.

Viral Conjunctivitis

  • Can occur with symptoms of a cold, flu, or other respiratory infection
  • Usually begins in one eye and may spread to the other eye within days
  • Discharge from the eye is usually watery rather than thick

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

  • More commonly associated with discharge (pus), which can lead to eyelids sticking together
  • Sometimes occurs with an ear infection

Allergic Conjunctivitis

  • Usually occurs in both eyes
  • Can produce intense itching, tearing, and swelling in the eyes
  • May occur with symptoms of allergies, such as an itchy nose, sneezing, a scratchy throat, or asthma

Conjunctivitis Caused by Irritants

  • Can produce watery eyes and mucus discharge

What we do know is how contagious pink eye can be and how important it is to disinfect common areas and avoid sharing items.

"When somebody has pink eye, it's very contagious to other people so you tend to see pink eye spread from person to person, that's a very normal thing to have happen," Dr. Edwards said. 

She also said it's a great reason to wash your hands and avoid touching your face. 

"It would remind people that the eyes are a portal for infection," Dr. Edwards said. 

Most cases of pink eye do not impact vision, but if you're experiencing eye pain or vision changes, seek medical attention immediately. 


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