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Infectious Diseases

Updated 01 April 2020

Pink eye could be a less common symptom of the new coronavirus

Although rare, conjunctivitis, or pink eye, has been found to be a symptom in some Covid-19 cases, a new alert reveals.

According to a new alert released this week by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, may be a symptom of the new coronavirus, with experts estimating it could be present in 1–3% of Covid-19 cases.

The Covid-19 virus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, primarily causes respiratory infection. Common symptoms include a dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath.

Recent research has revealed that some patients may also experience digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal discomfort. Sudden loss of smell also seems be an indicator of the virus - especially in people who may not be exhibiting other symptoms or meeting the vital criteria for testing, a previous article by Health24 reported. And now, most recently, pink eye has been included as a rare symptom of the virus.

Eye doctors to take precautions

According to Health24, conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is defined as "an inflammation of the delicate membrane that covers the white of the eyes and lines the inside surfaces of the eyelids." It can cause swelling, a burning sensation or watery discharge.

After several preliminary studies and anecdotal reports found this eye condition in Covid-19 patients, the American Academy of Ophthalmology issued an alert, explaining: “Two published reports and a more recent news article suggest the virus can cause conjunctivitis. Thus, it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by aerosol contact with the conjunctiva.  

“Affected patients frequently present to eye clinics or emergency departments. That increases the likelihood ophthalmologists may be the first providers to evaluate patients possibly infected with Covid-19.”

Pink eye is highly contagious and can be spread via skin-to-skin contact, or by touching a contaminated surface, such as a doorknob.

Other causes

The Academy therefore cautions ophthalmology practices to provide only urgent care to patients and to ensure their practices are sterilised regularly, as well as to minimise the number of patients in their waiting areas.

One out of 30 patients was found to have pink eye in a small February study in China. The researchers discovered traces of the Covid-19 virus in the patient’s eye secretions. However, in another study, the AAO clarified that infection of the virus through tears is rather low. 

The New England Journal of Medicine also published a study that found that, of 1 099 patients across 30 different Chinese hospitals, nine (almost 1%) had presented with "conjunctival congestion".

Although pink eye may have been found to be a rare symptom of the virus, the AAO also said to bear in mind that pink eye can have other causes too, including other viruses, bacteria, and allergies.

*As of 31 March 2020, there are more than 1 300 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in South Africa. Find all the updates here.

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Image: Luis Galves, Unsplash; DawnPoland, Getty