News

Is Pink Eye a Symptom of COVID-19?

pink eye

 

Andrei310 / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Pink eye is a possible symptom of COVID-19.
  • Vice President Mike Pence's eye appeared red during a debate, causing speculation about his COVID-19 status.

Vice President Mike Pence's left eye appeared red and watery during Wednesday night's debate with Senator Kamala Harris, prompting a glaring question: Is pink eye a symptom of COVID-19?

Because so many people close to President Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, Pence's exposure is certainly not in question. As of Friday, Pence had reportedly tested negative for the virus.

However, false-negative results are common in the early days of infection. According to Johns Hopkins University research, if testing occurs on day eight of an infection—usually three days after symptom onset—results are more accurate. Now, people are wondering if conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is an early COVID-19 symptom for Pence.

"Ultimately, we don’t fully know the incidence and prevalence of conjunctivitis in people diagnosed with COVID-19," says Johnstone M. Kim, MD, a board-certified ophthalmologist and Verywell Health Medical Review Board member. "What we do know is that conjunctivitis can be a sign of the disease, but it is very nonspecific without other associated symptoms. Occasionally, it can be the only symptom in some people."

What Is Pink Eye?

Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is the inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane that covers the white part of the eyeball and inner eyelid. Symptoms include redness, tearing, discharge, swelling, and itching. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are highly contagious.

Studies Link Pink Eye to COVID-19

Two studies published this summer in JAMA Ophthalmology suggest conjunctivitis can be a COVID-19 symptom, though one of them focuses exclusively on children.

A quarter of 216 hospitalized pediatric COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, experienced conjunctival discharge, eye rubbing, and conjunctival congestion between January 26 to March 18.

Researchers reported that children experiencing coughing and more systemic symptoms of COVID-19 were most likely to experience conjunctivitis.

A separate study looked at two adults with COVID-19 and conjunctivitis.

The first, a 29-year-old male, experienced conjunctival congestion three days after a colleague tested positive for COVID-19, but before he tested positive himself. Both a throat swab and a conjunctival swab of both eyes detected SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The second subject, a 51-year-old female, began experiencing conjunctival congestion and watery eyes 10 days after she was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. Physicians were able to detect SARS-CoV-2 in her tears.

In both adult cases, antiviral eye drops helped clear the conjunctivitis symptoms.

According to Kim, research on the subject of conjunctivitis and COVID-19 is ongoing.

"Graefes Archives in Clinical Ophthalmology has a study with 302 patients looking at the frequency and clinical presentation of conjunctivitis in COVID-19," he says. "Interestingly, [researchers] mention that about 1 in 10 hospitalized patients had conjunctivitis, but did not show any relationship to frequency based on severity of their disease. There are also numerous case series reporting conjunctivitis as the only symptom for COVID 19, although rare."

Can COVID-19 Spread Through the Eyes?

Research conducted early on in the pandemic suggests it is possible to contract SARS-CoV-2 through your eyes, and that ocular symptoms are more common in people with severe cases of COVID-19. However, the study involved a very small number of people (38).

Pence May Not Have Pink Eye

Ami A. Shah, MD, a board-certified ophthalmologist and Verywell Health Medical Review Board member, reminds us that we don't know for sure if Vice President Pence has conjunctivitis. His red eye could be linked to something unrelated to COVID-19.

"It actually looked like a subconjunctival hemorrhage," Shah says. "I thought maybe he was getting intravitreal injections for age-related macular degeneration. His pupil looked a little larger on that side, too, like he had been dilated."

Kim adds irritation may also be the culprit.

"Red, irritated eyes from allergies or exposure to any irritant can be confused with pink eye," he says.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kucirka LM, Lauer SA, Laeyendecker O, Boon D, Lessler J. Variation in false-negative rate of reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction-based SARS-CoV-2 tests by time since exposureAnn Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-1495

  2. Azari A, Barney N. ConjunctivitisJAMA. 2013;310(16):1721. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.280318

  3. Ma N, Li P, Wang X, et al. Ocular manifestations and clinical characteristics of children with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in Wuhan, ChinaJAMA Ophthalmol. Published online August 26, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2020.3690

  4. Deng C, Chen L, Chen X, Zhang X, Chen B, Sun X. Documenting course of 2 cases of conjunctivitis in mobile hospitals during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemicJAMA Ophthalmol. Published online August 27, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2020.3029

  5. Güemes-villahoz N, Burgos-blasco B, García-feijoó J, et al. Conjunctivitis in COVID-19 patients: frequency and clinical presentation. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2020. doi:10.1007/s00417-020-04916-0

  6. Wu P, Duan F, Luo C, et al. Characteristics of ocular findings of patients with Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Hubei Province, ChinaJAMA Ophthalmol. 2020;138(5):575–578. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2020.1291