Burning Eyes: COVID-19 or Allergies

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Can Coronavirus Affect Your Eyes?

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has a number of side effects that range from uncomfortable to fatal. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common coronavirus symptoms generally include the following: 10

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Muscle aches
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Loss of taste
  • Loss of smell

However, this is not an exhaustive list. Ocular symptoms like burning eyes can also be a symptom of COVID-19, as it is rare but possible to develop pink eye (also known as conjunctivitis) with COVID-19.

In fact, one study from China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated hospitalized patients with confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19. It found that conjunctivitis symptoms occurred in just 0.8 percent of those coronavirus patients.6

If you are having severe symptoms like persistent pain in your chest, are feeling confused, or are struggling to wake up or stay awake, you should seek immediate medical attention. Also reach out for emergency medical help if your skin, lips, or nails are turning gray or blue.10

If you call 911 or your local emergency facility, let the dispatcher know that you are seeking emergency help for someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19.

Are Burning Eyes a Sign of COVID-19?

Allergy and coronavirus symptoms can be similar. For example, they can both cause allergy symptoms like burning and watery eyes. While burning eyes does not mean that you have COVID-19, eyes that feel red and irritated may be a symptom.3

Pink eye refers to an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva (the transparent membrane) that lines your eyelid and covers the white of your eye. The small blood vessels in the conjunctiva can become inflamed and, when they do, they become more visible. This makes your eyes appear pink or red — hence the name.

Conjunctivitis may also occur with the common cold, flu, and respiratory infections. It may start in one eye and spread to the other eye, as well.8

Symptoms include the following: 8

  • Pink or red coloring of the eyes
  • Increased tears
  • Watery discharge (mucus and/or pus) in the eyes
  • Crust in the corners of the eyes and/or along the lash line (more than usual)
  • Itchiness
  • Irritation
  • Burning sensation
  • Swelling
  • Discomfort with contact lenses

Connection Between COVID-19, Allergies, and Pink Eye

COVID-19, allergies, and pink eye share some common symptoms. For example, COVID-19 and allergies can both cause:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Watery eyes
  • Eye swelling
  • Pink eye

Some people with COVID-19 have reported developing pink eye, among other allergy symptoms.2 Conjunctivitis may be either allergic or viral.

Allergic conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes, which may feel itchy and burn. The eyes may also appear puffy. Typically, other symptoms are also present with allergic conjunctivitis like sneezing and a runny nose.2

Viral conjunctivitis tends to be isolated to the eyes. However, if someone contracts viral conjunctivitis from the common cold, they are likely to have other symptoms (e.g., sore throat, sneezing, and stuffy nose). 

It also causes itchy, burning red eyes. But it is also usually accompanied by mucus or watery discharge.2

It’s recommended that you talk to a doctor if you have pink eye in combination with any of the above COVID-19 symptoms. Many of the common COVID-19 symptoms, like fever and chills, are not generally associated with allergies.

Other Eye Conditions Associated With Coronavirus

COVID-19 can affect your whole body, ranging from mild symptoms to severe ones. There’s a long list of potential coronavirus symptoms, including eye symptoms that are similar to eye allergy symptoms.

For example, similar to seasonal allergy symptoms, you may experience ocular itching or ocular redness. Your eyes may also feel overall irritated if you develop conjunctivitis. And your eyes may feel heavy from fatigue or irritated from headaches.

Can You Contract/Spread COVID-19 Through Your Eyes?

While ocular transmission has not been well researched, it is possible.1 This is because the body’s mucous membranes are the most susceptible parts of your body to the coronavirus and other viruses in general. This includes the mucous membrane that lines your eyes, the conjunctiva.1

Contracting and spreading coronavirus through your eyes is rare.5 But it can happen. 

If someone who is infected sneezes, coughs, or breathes around you, the tiny particles can make their way into your eyes. Similarly, if you touch an infected surface and then touch your eyes, you can contract coronavirus.9

Similarly, if you rub your eyes when you have COVID-19, and then touch surfaces, you can contribute to the spread of the virus.9

How to Protect Yourself (& Your Eyes) Against Coronavirus

Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself, including your eyes, from COVID-19. Here are some simple ways to keep yourself healthy: 4

  • Always wash your hands
  • Use alcohol-based disinfectants to clean surfaces around you
  • Do not touch your face

Remember that the ocular surface of your eyes already has its own protective barriers like antimicrobial proteins and natural lubricants.1 So regularly washing or flushing your eyes may actually have adverse effects by stripping them of these barriers. This can increase your risk of infection.1

However, if your eyes are burning or irritated, some eye drops may help to alleviate your symptoms. You should also change your pillowcases and use fresh towels every day.7

If your eyes are irritated and you wear contact lenses, consider switching to glasses for a little while. Glasses can also add a protective layer against the virus.3

As always, practicing safe social distancing can also protect you from contracting and spreading COVID-19 in any way.

Resources
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Ask the Expert: How Covid-19 Affects the Eyes.” USC Roski Eye Institute, 25 Aug. 2021.

Boyd, Kierstan. “Is It COVID-19 Or Allergies?American Academy of Ophthalmology, 6 Jan. 2021.

Coronavirus and Your Eyes.” American Academy of Cphthalmology.

Coronavirus.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization.

Eye Care during COVID-19: MASKS, Vaccines and Procedures.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 18 May 2021.

Ping Wu, MD. “Characteristics of Ocular Findings of Patients With Coronavirus DISEASE 2019 (COVID-19) in Hubei Province, China.” JAMA Ophthalmology, JAMA Network, 1 May 2020. 

Quick Home Remedies for Pink Eye.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 9 Dec. 2020.

Signs and Symptoms of Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Jan. 2019.

Stepko, Barbara. “Can You Catch Coronavirus through Your Eyes?AARP, 10 June 2020.

Symptoms of Covid-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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