This Is the Connection Between Pink Eye and COVID-19

The vice president's eye raised concern at Wednesday's debate. Here's what to know about conjunctivitis.

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Wednesday night's vice presidential debate between current Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris had viewers talking about a few topics in particular, some about what the debaters said ("Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking"), some about unexpected guests (a fly landing on Pence's head), and some about how they looked—yes, we're referring to Pence's left eye. It didn't take long for Twitter to take notice of Pence's ocular redness and soon, people were speculating about what the condition could mean. Of course, the conversation quickly turned to whether or not the red tinge to Pence's eye was a symptom of conjunctivitis, more colloquially known as pink eye, which has been linked to COVID. Even doctors were weighing in on Pence's rumored condition on Twitter, with some saying it was pink eye and others diagnosing it as a broken blood vessel.

Conjunctivitis is an extremely common condition, presenting in bacterial, viral, and allergic varieties. In all cases, it is essentially an infection or inflammation of the thin translucent membrane that sits between the eyeball and the eyelid, called the conjunctiva. The infection causes dilation of the blood vessels in the surrounding tissue, and often creates discharge. "The majority of cases in bacterial conjunctivitis are self-limiting and no treatment is necessary in uncomplicated cases," according to the National Center for Biotechnical Information. However, because of COVID-19, these are not ordinary circumstances and Pence's eye has led to speculation that he may have contracted coronavirus, especially considering the White House outbreak. Thus far, the vice president has tested negative for the virus, but here are some key facts to know about pink eye and COVID to keep yourself safe. And for more signs of the virus you may not know, These Are the 51 Most Common COVID Symptoms You Could Have.

Pink eye is a rare symptom of the coronavirus.

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While it's true that pink eye can be a symptom of COVID, it's quite rare. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists it as one of the "less common symptoms" of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not include it on its list of COVID symptoms to watch out for. According to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Medical Virology in May, conjunctivitis is estimated to present in only a small portion of patients: no more than 3 percent. And for a much more common symptom, know that There's an 80 Percent Chance You Have COVID If You Have This Symptom.

It's much more likely to affect severe patients.

Shutterstock/Supoj Pongpancharoen

That meta-analysis of studies on pink eye and COVID found that overall, 1.1 percent of coronavirus patients had conjunctivitis. However, for those who had severe cases, the rate was 3 percent, while it was only present in 0.7 percent of mild cases.

Additionally, in a Chinese study published in March, researchers concluded "one-third of patients with COVID-19 had ocular abnormalities, which frequently occurred in patients with more severe COVID-19." And for more severe COVID signs, check out This Is Why You Could Be Prone to a Severe Case of COVID, New Study Says.

COVID can be contracted through the conjunctiva.

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According to the latest optician advice, coronavirus can be contracted through the eyes, and specifically the conjunctiva, the membrane that becomes inflamed during a case of pink eye. This is due to the virus latching on to ACE-2 receptors on the cells of the membrane, which then act as a "gateway" into the similar receptor cells found in your respiratory tract and lungs. And for another update on how COVID spreads, check out The CDC Has Finally Acknowledged That COVID Spreads Through the Air.

Pink eye doesn't mean you have COVID.

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Plenty of factors can lead to pink eye, including colds, different viruses, and bacteria. There is no evidence that pink eye itself can cause COVID-19 or that having it places you at a higher risk of developing the disease. In regards to the research on COVID and pink eye, ophthalmologist Sonal Tuli, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said in a statement: "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. … Without a swab, we can't confirm that the reported eye symptoms were really caused by the coronavirus." And for more regular coronavirus updates, sign up for our daily newsletter.

How can you stay safe?

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Good hygiene around your eyes is especially vital at the current time. "Wash your hands a lot, follow good contact lens hygiene and avoid touching or rubbing your nose, mouth and especially your eyes," Tuli says. Additionally, you should try to protect your eyes on a daily basis. "If you have goggles or a face shield, you should use it," Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said.

While Pence's condition is statistically unlikely to show that he has COVID-19, it's a useful reminder to all of us of how important it is to stay clean and minimize contact with our eyes. If you have any symptoms that look like pink eye, stop wearing your contact lenses immediately and make an appointment with your doctor. And for more on staying safe, check out The One Way Dr. Fauci Says You're Not Protecting Yourself From COVID.

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John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more
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