Conjunctivitis, commonly referred to as “pink eye,” affects an estimated six million Americans each year.*
It occurs when the thin membrane that covers part of the front surface of the eye and inner surface of the eyelids becomes irritated by an infection or allergies. When this happens, eyes can become red and swollen. When infected, eyes may also produce a sticky discharge.
Some types of pink eye are very contagious and easily spread from person to person. According to Dr. Nika Priest-Allen, Board Certified Ophthalmologist at Quigley Eye Specialists, “Viral conjunctivitis is the most common form of pink eye. Viruses account for 80% of all cases. The good news is these types of cases usually go away on their own. The bad news is there may be a connection between the novel coronavirus and pink eye.”
Several medical reports suggest COVID-19 can spread through the eyes and cause pink eye when someone comes in contact with an individual infected with COVID-19.
Dr. Priest-Allen advises, “If you see someone with red or swollen eyes, do not panic. It does not mean the individual is infected with COVID-19, but certainly, follow CDC guidelines and distance yourself socially.”
Health officials believe pink eye develops in about one to three percent of people with the novel coronavirus. This is a relatively low number. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), “It appears conjunctivitis is an uncommon event as it relates to COVID-19 compared to other viruses that can cause pink eye.”
The following viruses can cause viral conjunctivitis more frequently. Adenoviruses are one of the most common causes of viral pink eye:
- Rubella virus
- Rubeola (measles) virus
- Herpes simplex virus
- Varicella-zoster virus
- Epstein-Barr virus
“What this means is that if you see someone with pink eye, it was more than likely caused by a virus other than COVID-19. And what we find is that patients who have pink eye symptoms with no other symptoms typically see an eye doctor first.”
– Dr. Priest-Allen
If a patient presents pink eye symptoms ahead of COVID-19 symptoms, this may increase COVID-19 exposure to ophthalmologists and optometric physicians. For example, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, contracted the novel coronavirus during the early part of the breakout. Unfortunately, he later died from apparent complications of the illness.
If an individual shows signs of pink eye along with other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fever or cough, it is important to contact the local hospital first and not an eye doctor. The respiratory symptoms are key indicators for COVID-19 and a hospital is equipped to test for the novel coronavirus. If a person is experiencing red, irritated eyes without a fever, cough or respiratory symptoms, that individual is encouraged to contact Quigley Eye Specialists for a virtual, telemedical eye appointment.
Telemedical eye exams are conducted over the phone using video.
If your eye doctor determines it is viral conjunctivitis, you may be advised to put a warm compress on your eye for a few minutes using a clean washcloth each time and a different washcloth for each eye to avoid the transfer of the condition from one eye to the other. Lubricating, preservative-free eye drops may also be helpful.
With COVID-19 spreading rapidly in the United States and around the world, it’s more important than ever to take extraordinary precautions in order to prevent the spread. Dr. Priest-Allen stresses, “During this unprecedented time, please stay inside as much as possible, stay up-to-date on CDC guidelines and wash your hands often.”
About Quigley Eye Specialists.
Technology leaders in eye care, Quigley Eye Specialists is one of the nation’s leading multispecialty ophthalmology practices specializing in cataracts, laser cataract surgery, glaucoma, LASIK, dry eye, eyelid surgery, retinal issues, corneal conditions and routine eye care. As the number one choice for cataract treatment in Southwest Florida, Quigley Eye Specialists is committed to providing the highest level of quality eye care and service to the community. The practice has served the region for more than 30 years and offers patients convenient locations throughout Southwest Florida including Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres, Naples, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. For more information, call 239-466-2020.
“Alert: Important Coronavirus Updates for Ophthalmologists” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 20 Mar. 2020, www.aao.org/headline/alert-important-coronavirus-context.
Azari, Amir A, and Neal P Barney. “Conjunctivitis: a Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Treatment” JAMA, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 23 Oct. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049531/.
“Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Jan. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pink-eye/symptoms-causes/syc-20376355.
*Azari & Barney, 2013