Coronavirus is causing pink eye in some patients — and it’s lingering for weeks

Korin Miller
A new research letter suggests patients with COVID-19 are getting pink eye that lasts for weeks. Experts unpack what that means.

In late March, news broke that pink eye can be one of the many symptoms of coronavirus. Now, there’s more: COVID-19 patients are getting pink eye, and it’s sticking around.

A new research letter published in the Annals of Internal Medicine details the story of an unnamed 65-year-old woman who developed pink eye after she contracted COVID-19, and it lingered for weeks. The woman, who was Italy’s first case of the virus, was taken to an isolation unit in Rome. Her symptoms at the time included a dry cough, sore throat, nasal inflammation, and pink eye (aka conjunctivitis) in both eyes, the report says.

The woman’s pink eye wouldn’t clear up, so doctors began taking an eye swab almost daily to test for coronavirus. The test confirmed that the woman’s eyes still contained SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, up to 21 days after her symptoms started.

"Conjunctivitis greatly improved at day 15 and apparently resolved at day 20," the letter says. But the pink eye came back on day 27 and the woman’s eye swab again tested positive for COVID-19, days after her nasal swab came back negative for the virus. As a result, the researchers concluded, the virus may live in a person’s eyes for longer than it does in the nose.

This isn’t a one-off: Doctors are seeing this in the U.S., too. “I’ve seen many cases of COVID-19 patients with conjunctivitis,” Rajeev Fernando, MD, an infectious disease expert in Southampton, NY, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s often in both eyes, and it’s noticeable.”

What is pink eye, and why is coronavirus causing it?

Pink eye, aka conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that covers the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelids, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Symptoms can include a pink or red color in the whites of the eyes, increased tear production, feeling like there’s a foreign object in your eyes, itching, irritation, crusting of the eyelids, and discharge, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Related Video: Pink Eye as a Symptom of COVID-19

Pink eye can be caused by a range of different things, including allergies, bacterial infections, and viruses, including COVID-19, Zeba A. Syed, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology and a corneal surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Eye experts aren’t shocked that COVID-19 is causing this symptom. “It’s very common to see conjunctivitis—and lingering conjunctivitis—associated with any respiratory virus,” Syed says. “We see it all the time in our cornea and ophthalmology clinics.”

“It’s very common with any upper respiratory infection,” Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist and contact lens specialist with UCLA Health, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Our mucous membranes are all connected.”

How common is pink eye from coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a newer virus, and there’s still a lot that researchers are learning about it. But one study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in February analyzed the symptoms of 1,000 people with COVID-19 and found that less than 1% had pink eye.

And, while some doctors in the U.S. are seeing this symptom regularly, others aren’t seeing it at all. “I haven’t seen this in COVID-19 patients,” Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

How long does pink eye from coronavirus last?

It really depends, and Syed says there’s no way to predict how long a particular patient’s coronavirus-induced pink eye will last. “Some people have a shorter course and some have a longer course,” she says. “No one knows exactly why.” Still, she adds, “it’s not unusual to see” a lingering case of pink eye with a viral infection.

Should I be worried about coronavirus if I develop pink eye?

Having pink eye alone doesn’t usually mean you have COVID-19, Fernando says. “Pink eye can be caused by allergies, and it’s allergy season,” he points out. However, if you have a fever along with your eye symptoms, he says it’s a good idea to call your doctor. “Allergies won’t cause a fever,” Fernando says.

What can you do if you develop pink eye from coronavirus?

You don’t have to just suffer through it — there is treatment available. “Our treatment goal is to reduce discomfort and limit the spread of infection,” Shibayama says. She recommends using a cold compress to relieve pain and irritation, and artificial tears for discomfort. “Antihistamine drops can help with itching,” she adds.