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Is there a correlation between red eyes and coronavirus?

woman wearing a mask who has coronavirus and red eyes

New evidence is emerging that eye redness might be a symptom of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

On March 23, 2020, CNN reported that a nurse at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, recalled red eyes being a clinical sign in some elderly residents who had developed COVID-19. Twenty-nine people associated with the nursing home died from coronavirus complications, including 18 residents of the nursing home.

"It's something that I witnessed in all of them (the patients)," Chelsey Earnest told CNN. "They have, like, um — you can describe it like allergy eyes. The white part of the eye is not red. It's more like they have red eye shadow on the outside of their eyes.

"But we've had patients that just had red eyes as the only symptom that we saw, and go to the hospital and pass away in the hospital," Earnest said. As CNN noted, as of now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list red eyes as a symptom of COVID-19.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) concurs.

The Washington cases of redness around the eye make up the only known report of this phenomenon, Dr. Sonal Tuli, a clinical spokeswoman for the AAO, told Today.com. There’s “not enough data currently to suggest this is a symptom of COVID-19,” Tuli said.

DO YOU OR DOES SOMEONE YOU KNOW HAVE RED, IRRITATED EYES? Contact an eye doctor near you and ask for advice about what you should do about them.

Pink eye and coronavirus

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recently alerted its members that COVID-19 might cause conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye. Conjunctivitis, the inflammation of the conjunctiva, can trigger redness and irritation in and around the eyes.

The conjunctiva is the clear, thin membrane that covers part of the front of the eye and the inner part of the eyelids. Viral conjunctivitis often accompanies the common cold, the flu and other virus driven infections.

The AAO notes, however, that it appears conjunctivitis “is an uncommon event” among COVID-19 patients. Health officials believe conjunctivitis develops in about 1% to 3% of those who’ve been infected with the virus, the group says.

The virus can spread by touching fluid from an infected person’s eye or by touching objects that have been in contact with the fluid, the Academy says.

The ophthalmology group says patients seeking treatment for conjunctivitis might be infected with COVID-19 if they also show these symptoms:

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

Another possible indicator: recent travel to places that have experienced coronavirus outbreaks. These areas include U.S. hotspots like New York City, as well as China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.

Conjunctivitis could be a sign of coronavirus

The American Academy of Ophthalmology cites two recently published studies suggesting that there’s a connection between conjunctivitis and COVID-19:

A study published in the Journal of Medical Virology looked at 30 patients hospitalized in China for treatment of COVID-19. One of the patients had coronavirus identified in eye secretions. The researchers say this could mean the virus can infect the conjunctiva and cause conjunctivitis. Viral loads are most often identified in and transmitted through mucous membranes.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers discovered “conjunctival congestion” in nine of 1,099 patients with COVID-19. It’s worth noting that those with “conjunctival congestion” represented just 0.8% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases.

SEE RELATED: Coronavirus linked to pink eye: How to protect your eyes

Meanwhile, a JAMA Ophthalmology study published March 31, 2020, showed 12 of 38 COVID-19 patients treated Feb. 9-15, 2020, at a hospital in China had eye conditions consistent with conjunctivitis. For one patient, conjunctivitis was the first symptom. 

Based on this early evidence, the ophthalmology group warns that patients with conjunctivitis “could represent cases of COVID-19.” Therefore, ophthalmologists and optometrists might be the first health care providers to evaluate patients possibly infected with COVID-19.

As explained by Rady’s Children Hospital–San Diego, viruses are the most common cause of conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis may affect both eyes. Symptoms normally last five to seven days and include:

  • Redness in the whites of the eyes

  • Eyelid swelling

  • A sandy, gritty feeling in the eye

  • Tearing

  • Watery or slightly thick, whitish drainage

Dr. Chris Stansbury, an optometrist at West Virginia Eye Consultants, told TV station WCHS that if you suspect you have conjunctivitis, you should contact your eye doctor.

“I would not recommend going to the ER, because there you may come into contact with people who actually have coronavirus,” Stansbury says. “We can look at the eyes and begin to differentiate. Is it allergic? Viral? Bacterial? And then we’ll know how to treat you.”

Be sure to call or email your eye doctor before heading to his or her office. Many eye doctors have closed their offices amid the COVID-19 pandemic and are now diagnosing patients via virtual visits and telemedicine.

Pink eye secretions can spread coronavirus

Keep in mind that pink eye is highly contagious. It’s spread through contact with the eye secretions, which contains the virus (or bacteria) that causes conjunctivitis, the San Diego children’s hospital says.

“If you touch an infected eye, and then touch your other eye or an object while you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria can be spread,” the hospital says.

Health experts primarily blame poor hand washing for the spread of pink eye. Sharing objects such as towels, washcloths, contact lens equipment, eye makeup and eye medicine with a person who has pink eye also can spread the infection, the children’s hospital says.

WORRIED ABOUT RED EYES? Call an eye doctor near you to find out if you need to seek medical attention.

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