Reviewed by: Michael Newkirk, MD
Former Vice President Mike Pence’s red, watery eyes raised new questions about COVID-19 symptoms. Within minutes of noticing perceived redness at the first 2020 Vice Presidential debate, viewers took to social media speculating at the cause and asking the question on everyone’s mind: Is conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, a symptom of COVID-19?
As information evolves and we learn more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the novel coronavirus, it can be difficult to stay up-to-date with the latest findings. While we may not know everything about this virus or its symptoms, one thing is certain: pink eye can be a symptom of COVID-19.
Pink Eye and COVID-19
Although somewhat rare, conjunctivitis or pink eye is a known symptom of COVID-19. According to the National Institute of Health, “the main symptoms of COVID‐19 are fever, cough, fatigue, slight dyspnea (difficult or labored breathing), sore throat, headache, conjunctivitis, and gastrointestinal issues.”
Based on current data, estimates show that 1%-3% of patients with COVID-19 will also get conjunctivitis. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that 83%-99% of patients with COVID-19 will develop a fever, and 59%-82% will experience a cough.
Although having pink eye does not necessarily mean you have COVID-19, it’s an important symptom to recognize. If you are also experiencing other COVID-19 symptoms like fever, shortness of breath, or cough, talk to your doctor right away for instruction, evaluation, and if necessary, testing.
Conjunctivitis is typically very contagious and is easily spread through direct or indirect contact with an infected person. If you have pink eye as the result of COVID-19, you may transmit the virus to others by simply touching your eyes then touching surfaces or people without first washing or disinfecting your hands.
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What is Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)?
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is the inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the whites of your eye. Small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become irritated, making them more visible and causing the whites of your eyes to appear pink or red.
Pink eye is most commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection, including the virus that causes COVID-19. It can also occur as the result of an allergic reaction, or in babies, due to a partially closed tear duct.
How Do You Catch Pink Eye?
Most cases of pink eye are caused by bacteria or viruses. In general, the bacteria spreads to your eyes from your respiratory system or skin. If viral, it can spread from your nose to your eyes, or you can catch it when someone sneezes or coughs and the droplets come in contact with your eyes. When it comes to how to get pink eye, not washing your hands—and frequently touching your face—can both play a big role.
What are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?
Most commonly pink eye presents as:
- Redness or pink coloring in the whites of one or both eyes
- Itchiness in one or both eyes
- A gritty, sand-like feeling in one or both eyes
- Discharge from one or both eyes – this may crust over during the night and prevent the eye(s) from opening in the morning
- Excessive tears or watery eyes
How is Pink Eye Treated?
Generally, pink eye treatment is focused on symptom relief as most cases of pink eye are viral in nature. This means you won’t likely need antibiotic eye drops as many cases of pink eye go away with over-the-counter treatments in 1-2 weeks.
To help relieve the symptoms of pink eye, try using artificial tears, cleaning your eyelids and surrounding skin regularly, and applying a warm or cold compress. You will also want to dispose of your contact lenses and thoroughly disinfect or dispose of any face products, makeup, or beauty tools that have come into contact with your eyes.
If you have pink eye, make sure you are washing or sanitizing your hands frequently, especially any time you touch your eyes or face, to prevent spreading the infection to others.
In some cases, the pink eye does require antibiotics or antivirals, or the help of allergy medication. If you experience ongoing or worsening symptoms without relief, or if your vision is impaired, reach out to your doctor right away to ensure another eye condition is not present.
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