Are red eyes from coronavirus or allergies?
If you have itchy, red, watery eyes, it's likely you are suffering from seasonal allergies (or a cold) — and not COVID-19.
Why? Itchy or watery eyes are not common symptoms of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 respiratory illness.
Also, a key difference between the coronavirus and allergies is a fever. A fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, while it’s not associated with seasonal allergies.
Allergy vs. coronavirus symptoms
Dr. Gary Steven, a Milwaukee allergist who serves on the board of regents of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, told the AARP website that you should keep track of what worsens your symptoms if you’re not feeling well.
“If you’re fine when you’re indoors and the windows are closed, but then you go out on a dry, windy day and start sneezing your head off, yes, that’s an allergy,” Steven says.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reminds us that typical symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough (usually dry), shortness of breath and tiredness.
Less common coronavirus symptoms include:
Stuffy or runny nose
Aches and pains
Diarrhea or nausea
“Many of the early symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other illnesses and allergies, which can make it difficult to tell early coronavirus symptoms from typical allergies, especially this time of year [spring]," Dr. John Cohn, professor of allergy and immunology at Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told the Jefferson Health website.
"Making the correct diagnosis is a particular problem since those infected vary so greatly in the severity of their illness,” he added.
While most of the symptoms of COVID-19 and allergies don’t overlap, allergies also aren't a risk factor for coronavirus infection, according to the European Academy of Allergy & Clinical Immunology.
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM ALLERGIES OR CORONAVIRUS? Call your local eye doctor, who is an expert at eye conditions. Schedule a virtual visit or an in-office appointment. Eye care practices have added safety measures to reduce your COVID-19 risk.
Coronavirus, allergies and conjunctivitis
According to a press release issued by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, develops in only 1% to 3% of COVID-19 cases. But several things, including allergies, can cause pink eye.
If a virus like the one that can lead to COVID-19 causes pink eye, the condition usually starts in one eye and might move to the other eye within a few days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. Also, discharge from the eye normally is watery, not thick.
Allergies can also cause conjunctivitis, according to the CDC, but the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis differ somewhat from the symptoms of viral conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis normally occurs in both eyes, and can trigger itching, tearing and swelling in the eyes.
Conjunctivitis is diagnosed through a comprehensive eye exam that can include:
Review of your symptoms
Measurements to determine whether your vision has been harmed
Evaluation of your conjunctiva and external eye tissue
Evaluation of the inner part of your eyes
Red eyes in Seattle nursing home COVID-19 patients
It's possible that red eyes unrelated to conjunctivitis might also be a symptom of COVID-19.
A nurse at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, told CNN she and other colleagues noticed that what seemed to be “red eye shadow” on the outside of the eyes was prevalent among patients with COVID-19. Complications from the disease killed more than two dozen people associated with the nursing home.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology mentioned the CNN report in a March 2020 alert to its members; however, a definitive tie between this eye redness and COVID-19 hasn’t been proven.
“Red eyes alone are not enough to diagnose the [coronavirus] infection, but may trigger other screening questions such as fevers, cough, shortness of breath and possible exposure to a known COVID-infected person,” Dr. Joshua Barocas, assistant professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, told Newsweek.
Red eyes can be caused by infections or allergies. Also, it's possible for someone to have COVID-19 and be infected by a different virus that causes red eyes.
"To my knowledge, there have been no reports of red eyes or conjunctivitis as the first symptom or only symptom of COVID-19," added Dr. Sean T. O'Leary, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, in the Newsweek report.
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM ALLERGIES OR SOMETHING ELSE? Call your local eye doctor, who is an expert at eye conditions. Schedule a virtual visit or an in-office appointment.
RELATED READING: COVID-19 and eye soreness
Page updated February 2021