The new coronavirus behind the pandemic causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19. Its most common symptoms are a fever, coughing, and breathing problems. Rarely, it also can cause an eye infection called conjunctivitis.
Based on data so far, doctors believe that 1%-3% of people with COVID-19 will get conjunctivitis, also called pinkeye. It happens when the virus infects a tissue called conjunctiva, which covers the white part of your eye or the inside of your eyelids. Symptoms include if your eyes are:
If you have conjunctivitis, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. The more likely causes are the many different viruses, bacteria, chemicals, and allergens that can irritate your eyes.
Many forms of conjunctivitis go away with over-the-counter treatments in about 1-2 weeks.
But if you also have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, ask your doctor what, if anything, you should do. Call before you head to a hospital or a medical center to see if it’s safe for you to visit and for any instructions for your arrival.
How the Infection Spreads
The new coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2, gets passed on primarily through droplets from a cough or a sneeze. These particles most often enter through your nose or mouth as well as your eyes. It’s also possible to catch the virus if you touch a contaminated countertop, doorknob, or other surfaces. But this doesn’t seem to be the main way the virus spreads.
If you have conjunctivitis from COVID-19, you may infect others with SARS-CoV-2 if you touch your eyes and then touch people or surfaces without washing or disinfecting your hands. Avoid touching your face, especially the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, and eyes.
Seeing Your Doctor
Earlier in the pandemic, many doctors temporarily closed their offices except for emergency care. Call or go online to find out whether your doctor’s office is accepting routine visits. You should still contact your doctor if you notice eye symptoms, especially if you have:
- Macular degeneration
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Regular eye injections
- Loss of vision or changes like blank spots or flashes
- Painful or red eyes, headache, nausea, and vomiting
Contact your doctor if you have any COVID-19 symptoms or if you’ve had contact with people who are sick. Your doctor may suggest a virtual visit over your computer or smartphone.
How to Protect Your Eyes
Like everyone, be sure to wash your hands often and stay home whenever you can. If you go out, keep 6 feet away from others and wear a mask. It also may be a good idea to:
Wear glasses. If you wear contact lenses, switch to glasses for a bit. That may help keep your hands away from your eyes. Also, the lenses may help protect your eyes from any respiratory droplets. If you don’t wear glasses, try sunglasses. And if you’re caring for someone ill, don safety glasses or goggles.
Stock up eye medication. Check with your insurer to see if you can refill glaucoma drops and other essential prescriptions in advance. You might be able to get a 3-month supply. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for any help.
Don’t rub your eyes. It can be a hard habit to break. Moistening drops may help ease itchiness. Wash your hands for 20 seconds before and after you do it. If you must touch your eyes, use a tissue instead of your fingers.