Can Covid-19 Actually Cause Pink Eye? Here's What An Ophthalmologist Says To Watch For

Pink eye is more likely caused by the adenovirus than the novel coronavirus.

An Asian child whose eyes are tired from studying or playing games on a tablet. The child is rubbing...

While life has slowly shifted away from peak pandemic times, Covid-19 continues to remind us in many ways that we still must be cautious. Most recently, a spate of pink eye cases has arisen in connection with a new subvariant of the virus. Currently, the new variant, XBB.1.16, a.k.a. "Arcturus”, accounts for about 10 percent of Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

Pink eye is especially common in children, but can infection with SARS-CoV-2 really cause pink eye? Here’s what you need to know.

What is pink eye?

First, what actually is pink eye? Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an inflammation of the white areas of the eyes, known as the sclera, which can be caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria in our environments. In the case of viral pink eye, typically, both eyes will contract this condition, and it’s contagious. Bacterial pink eye, which is also contagious, requires antibiotics for treatment.

Symptoms of viral pink eye are a burning sensation with watery discharge that may leave a crusty residue that could make eyelids stick shut. These symptoms usually accompany a runny nose, cough, or sore throat because the virus also affects the sinuses. This condition “can spread pretty easily,” Ashley Brissette, an assistant ophthalmology professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital, tells Inverse.

In contrast, bacterial conjunctivitis can cause swelling and redness with a “milky” discharge, Brissette describes, though the eye might produce this icky stuff for only one night. While this type is also contagious, it typically stays limited to one eye.

Seasonal allergies can be another conjunctivitis culprit, making the eyes red, itchy, and watery.

Can Covid-19 cause pink eye?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 is a respiratory infection that affects the sinuses. The virus’s proximity to the eyes can infect that part of the body too, Brissette says.

“We know that if the virus is in the sinuses, it's so close to the eye that you can get contamination, and then symptoms can start to present in the eyes,” she says. Still, she notes that conjunctivitis is much more likely caused by adenovirus, which causes the common cold.

The connection between conjunctivitis and Covid-19 isn’t new. Brissette harkens back to the old days of 2020 when we were all getting first acquainted with the novel disease. “There were eye manifestations even back in 2020 when Covid first presented,” she says. About 1 to 3 percent of adults with Covid-19 presented pink eye as a symptom, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

However, the pink eye doesn’t automatically indicate that you have Covid-19. “If you have pink eye, it's probably more commonly related to adenovirus, which is a general kind of common cold virus that's in the environment,” Brissette tells Inverse.

What if I think I have pink eye?

There’s no treatment for viral or allergy-induced pink eye, just as there’s no treatment for the common cold. Brissette recommends frequent handwashing, using artificial tears to soothe red eyes (refrigerating the drops can make them feel more refreshing), and regularly changing face towels and pillowcases so viruses don’t linger on surfaces that may touch others’ eyes. Brissette tells her patients it can take two weeks for viral pink eye symptoms to quell.

Bacterial pink eye, on the other hand, does sometimes need to be treated. If severe enough, it can call for a round of antibiotic eye drops.

Brissette adds that if inflammation or blurry vision persists from either viral or bacterial infection, prescription eye drops can do the trick, though that rarely happens. “Oftentimes, the body just naturally heals it like it does for the common cold,” she says.

The Covid-19 vaccine may also offer some extra protection, both against the virus and its comorbidities. “I think just having the vaccine will help to prevent your risk of development of Covid-19 and probably even decrease the severity of your symptoms,” she says.

Above all, she says, “Good hygiene is essential.”

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