The most common symptoms of the coronavirus that has stopped the world in its tracks are fever, coughing and breathing difficulties. But doctors are finding that the respiratory disease known as COVID-19 can also cause an eye infection called conjunctivitis.
The discovery of conjunctivitis in COVID-19 patients is rare. As of mid-April, doctors believed that only 1 to 3 percent of all the people who could contract COVID-19 would also suffer from conjunctivitis, most likely during the middle phase of the illness.
According to one report in the Journal of Medical Virology, a study of 30 COVID-19 patients in China showed that only one had ocular secretions or tears containing SARS-CoV-2 RNA, which is the carrier of the coronavirus’s genetic information.
But another study detailed in the New England Journal of Medicine Journal Watch claimed that a third of the COVID-19 patients in that study had confirmed cases of conjunctivitis, a finding that has since been challenged.
Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is what develops when the clear tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid becomes inflamed. The result is red, itchy and swollen eyes, and while conjunctivitis is not a serious condition, it is highly contagious.
Children are highly susceptible to conjunctivitis, which is known to spread easily throughout schools and day care centers. However, having conjunctivitis alone does not mean a person also has COVID-19.
Though it can develop as a result of exposure to viruses, conjunctivitis can also be caused by exposure to certain bacteria as well as more common irritants such as shampoo, dirt, smoke, pool chlorine and eye drops.
Though it’s best to be treated for conjunctivitis by an ophthalmologist, home remedies such as warm compresses and over-the-counter medicines can treat its symptoms. No matter the approach, it usually takes about two weeks for conjunctivitis to disappear.
During that healing period, several steps can be taken to expedite the healing process and protect your eyes from further damage. For example, if you wear contact lenses, wear glasses instead until the conjunctivitis is completely healed.
And don’t rub your eyes. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but treating your itchy eyes with moistening drops or dabbing them with a tissue and immediately throwing the tissue away can help you avoid spreading the condition.
Because conjunctivitis is highly contagious, it can be transmitted by the hands just as the coronavirus can, so washing your hands regularly and avoiding handshakes is another way to avoid spreading the infection.