Pink Eye Could be a Rare Symptom of COVID-19, Doctors Say

April 1, 2020 Updated: April 1, 2020

Developing conjunctivitis—commonly known as pink eye—may be a rare symptom of COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

The AAO—a medical association of 32,000 ophthalmologists—on Tuesday said that in rare cases, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, can cause a “mild follicular” conjunctivitis, and that reports suggest it can be transmitted by aerosol contact with conjunctiva.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the transparent layer that covers the white part of the eye and can cause redness, burning and itching in the eye, tearing, and a slight blurring of vision. Depending on the cause, it can be highly contagious.

The AAO urged doctors to look out for patients with conjunctivitis, who also show symptoms more commonly associated with COVID-19. Health experts say that CCP virus symptoms include a dry cough, shortness of breath, and fever and that it can lead to pneumonia, particularly in the elderly and in those who have pre-existing conditions.

The organization, in its advisory, cited a study published in the Journal of Medical Virology which looked at the presence of the CCP virus in tears and conjunctival secretions of 30 COVID-19 patients in China. It found one patient had conjunctivitis.

Meanwhile, a separate study published in the Journal of Medical Virology examined 38 CCP virus patients in China and found that 12 of the patients displayed symptoms consistent with conjunctivitis. These symptoms included conjunctival hyperemia, chemosis, epiphora, or increased secretions.

The AAO also referenced a more extensive study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which examined 1,099 COVID-19 patients across 30 hospitals in China. Nine Patients displayed “conjunctival congestion.”

“While it appears conjunctivitis is an uncommon event as it relates to COVID-19, other forms of conjunctivitis are common. Affected patients frequently present to eye clinics or emergency departments,” the organization advised.

Conjunctivitis as a symptom of the CCP virus has not been confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, a veteran care home nurse told CNN last week that the most unwell patients appeared to show symptoms consistent with pink eye.

“It’s something that I witnessed in all of them (the patients). They have … 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,” said Chelsey Earnest, of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington.

“We’ve had patients that just had the red eyes as the only symptom that we saw and go to the hospital and pass away,” she added. “I’ve even had the disaster medical control physician say, ‘Do they have the red eyes?’ And I will say yes. And he’ll say, ‘I’ll find you a bed.’ It’s just something about this, the way that it affects these patients.”

The AAO urged ophthalmologists to protect their eyes, nose, and mouth when seeing patients who could be infected with COVID-19.