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  • Pink Eye May Be a Symptom of COVID-19 in Children

    Reviewed By Sonal S Tuli, MD
    Published Apr. 21, 2023

    A new COVID subvariant, XBB.1.16 "Arcturus," is suspected to cause conjunctivitis, or pink eye, among children. But don’t hit the panic button if your child has red, itchy eyes, say ophthalmologists, physicians who specialize in medical and surgical eye care. Children get pink eye frequently. Eye symptoms alone are probably not a sign of the virus. But if your child has been exposed to the virus or if they have other symptoms, such as a fever or cough, consider having them tested.

    Is pink eye a symptom of COVID-19?

    There is research identifying conjunctivitis as a possible symptom of earlier coronavirus strains, with studies suggesting the symptom can be linked to pediatric and adult cases alike. 

    Researchers in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus was first detected, examined 216 children between the ages of 2 and 11 years old. All children had tested positive for COVID-19, and while many symptomatic patients had common coronavirus symptoms such as fevers and coughs, 22.7% of the children studied showed "various ocular manifestations." Previous studies show pink eye or conjunctivitis does occur in adult patients with coronavirus, but at a much lower rate of 1% to 3%.

    “Although the numbers do seem to be higher among children, keep in mind that this study did not do a swab of the eye,” says Sonal Tuli, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Some assumptions are being made here — that all the COVID-19 patients who showed signs of ocular symptoms were experiencing pink eye because of coronavirus. Lots of things can cause conjunctivitis, such as colds, different viruses and bacteria. Without a swab, we can’t confirm that the reported eye symptoms were really caused by the coronavirus.”

    Thomas Steinemann, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, agrees. Dr. Steinemann told the Washington Post that "although coronavirus could cause [pink eye], other viruses or eye allergies are the more likely culprits. Most conjunctivitis is not COVID."

    What should I do if my child has red, irritated, and watery eyes?

    Children with pink eye should stay home, whether or not they also have the coronavirus. The most common form of pink eye spreads easily from person to person. Follow these tips so you will not infect other people or re-infect yourself:

    • Use a clean towel or tissue each time you wipe your face and eyes.
    • Wash your hands often. Always wash your hands before and after you eat, when you go to the bathroom and after you sneeze or cough.
    • Try not to touch your eyes. If you do, wash your hands right away.
    • Bacteria can live in makeup. Pink eye can be spread through the use of makeup and even lead to a dangerous infection of the cornea. Do not use eye makeup while your eyes are infected. Replace your makeup if you have an eye infection. And never share eye makeup with others.
    • Make sure to clean your contact lenses exactly as your ophthalmologist recommends.

    If you think your child has pink eye, contact your ophthalmologist to discuss symptoms and treatment options.

    If my child has pink eye, should they get tested for COVID-19?

    It is unlikely that coronavirus is the cause of your child's pink eye if your child has not been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or recently participated in large social gatherings. If your child has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, however, contact your medical provider to discuss testing.

    Will eye protection prevent my child from catching the coronavirus?

    Eye goggles or eye shields are unnecessary for most people, but are recommended for those whose jobs or other responsibilities put them at high risk of exposure. Frequent hand washing, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing remain the best ways to stay healthy.


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