According to some reports, conjunctivitis is an uncommon COVID-19 symptom, affecting between 0.8 and 31.6% of people who test positive. Sometimes, conjunctivitis is the only sign of COVID-19, but it can also occur alongside others, such as fever or cough.

The statistic above comes from a 2022 case control study.

Conjunctivitis involves inflammation of the transparent tissue covering the white of the eye, or the conjunctiva. Other names for the condition include red eye or pink eye.

Most cases of conjunctivitis develop due to a virus, so it follows that COVID-19 could lead to conjunctivitis.

People with COVID-19 may develop watering, red eyes and a sensation that something is stuck in the eye. However, other conditions can also cause these symptoms, including other infections.

This article explores conjunctivitis and COVID-19, including the link, symptoms, treatment, and how long it lasts.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

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Overall, eye-related symptoms are rare in COVID-19, but among the eye symptoms that can occur, conjunctivitis and keratitis are the most common.

Conjunctivitis refers to an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers part of the white of the eye. Keratitis is an inflammation of the cornea, the transparent layer at the front of the eye.

Is conjunctivitis an early COVID-19 symptom?

Yes, conjunctivitis can be the first symptom that a person experiences. However, it can also develop at any point during the illness. For example, conjunctivitis sometimes develops in people while they are at the hospital for severe COVID-19.

Conjunctivitis can also be the only manifestation of COVID-19, with no other symptoms. It is unclear how often this happens, but it may mean some people do not realize they have the condition.

According to a 2022 case control study, the most common symptoms of people with COVID-19-related conjunctivitis are:

  • red, inflamed eyes
  • tearing
  • photophobia, or light sensitivity

Other potential symptoms of COVID-19 include:

A person can have all of these symptoms, some of them, or only one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that people with potential COVID-19 symptoms should seek testing immediately. They can do this by following local health authority guidelines.

If the test result is positive, the person should isolate at home for a minimum of 5 days and stay away from others in their household. This means:

  • not sharing cups, utensils, and towels
  • wearing a mask when around others
  • using a separate bathroom, if possible

It is also a suitable idea to improve ventilation in the house. Opening windows and increasing airflow helps reduce the number of virus particles in the air and lowers the risk of transmission.

If the test is negative, a person may have conjunctivitis due to another viral infection, such as a common cold. If this is the case, the symptoms will typically go away on their own without treatment.

If the symptoms do not get better, are severe, or keep worsening, a person should contact a doctor immediately. This applies whether they test positive for COVID-19 or not.

People at high risk of complications from viral illnesses should also contact a doctor to get medication to help fight the virus.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, this may confirm the cause of the conjunctivitis. However, if they test negative or the symptoms are atypical, there may be another cause.

To determine this, a doctor will have questions about the symptoms, a person’s medical history, and if they have been in contact with anyone who is sick. They may also examine the eye if the appointment is in person.

Viral conjunctivitis due to COVID-19 may not require treatment. The condition will usually get better by itself.

There are also home treatments suitable for adults and children that can ease symptoms. People can try:

  • using artificial tears, which may lubricate the eye and reduce scratchiness
  • holding a warm compress, such as a damp cloth or cotton pad, over the eyes for a few minutes
  • drinking enough fluids to avoid dehydration
  • wearing sunglasses or dimming the lights if a person has photosensitivity

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious, so a person needs to follow these measures:

  • Always thoroughly wash the hands before and after touching the eyes.
  • Use a fresh cotton pad or washcloth with each compress or when cleaning the eye.
  • Safely wash or dispose of the item afterward, rather than re-using it.

A person should also avoid using contact lenses and eye makeup until symptoms improve. They should not use eye drops that reduce redness during the infection, as this can worsen symptoms.

If the symptoms are severe or persistent or the individual has a weakened immune system, a doctor may prescribe antiviral eye drops, such as Ribavirin, to reduce symptoms. Adults and children over 3 years old can use this medication.

Conjunctivitis is one of the more uncommon signs of COVID-19, so there is limited data on how long it usually lasts.

One case control study found that after 8–10 days of treatment, most people with COVID-19-related conjunctivitis had no symptoms. However, several individuals had symptoms for more than 2 weeks.

That said, COVID-19 symptoms, including those affecting the eyes, can sometimes last much longer. This may happen if a person develops long COVID. In most instances, the visual problems relate to vascular or neurologic complications that interfere with typical eye function.

Long COVID describes prolonged or recurrent COVID-19 symptoms that can last weeks, months, or years after the initial infection. For some, this may mean they continue experiencing eye symptoms.

Conjunctivitis is a potential symptom of COVID-19 and can be the only sign of the infection in some cases. A person with conjunctivitis due to COVID-19 may have red, burning, or watery eyes. They may also have a sensation that something is stuck in the eye.

Often, viral conjunctivitis resolves on its own. A person can also ease symptoms with self-care measures, such as applying compresses to the eyes or using lubricating drops.

If a person suspects they have COVID-19-related conjunctivitis, they should take a COVID-19 test. They need to seek medical advice if the symptoms are unusual or severe.