At the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, all eyes were on, well, Mike Pence’s left eye, which appeared to be red. Many speculated that the vice president had conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) and wondered if it was a sign of COVID-19.
An outbreak of the coronavirus is currently rippling its way through the White House. Several members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle have been infected, including Trump himself. As of now, the vice president has reported that he’s tested negative for the virus, and White House doctors reportedly cleared him of pink eye. So it’s complete conjecture that Pence had conjunctivitis during the debate.
But since we’re talking about it: In general, pink eye can be a rare symptom of COVID-19.
How the coronavirus can affect the eyes
Not a lot is known about COVID-19 and our eyes. The coronavirus can enter the body through mucous membranes, which is basically an open surface on your face. It’s mostly commonly contracted through the nose or the mouth ― which is why face masks are so important ― but it can also enter through the eyes under the right circumstances.
A viral or bacterial infection can lead to pink eye, so it makes sense that COVID-19 may cause this issue in some cases. The most glaring signs of a conjunctivitis infection include redness of the eye, itchiness, burning, increased teariness and blurred vision.
Another study published August in the medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology found that conjunctivitis can affect pediatric COVID-19 patients. Data collected from 216 hospitalized kids from January to March showed that 23% of them had conjunctival discharge, congestion and eye rubbing.
In other rare instances, data shows that COVID-19 may also cause other eye problems, such as chemosis (swelling of the clear membrane in the eye) and epiphora (excessive tearing), Healthline reported.
The most common COVID-19 symptoms
To reiterate, ocular issues aren’t the most common way the coronavirus manifests. While the illness affects everyone differently, there are some general issues that medical experts have come to expect in a patient with COVID-19.
A fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, chills, muscle aches and fatigue are way more common symptoms. Diarrhea, headaches, nerve pain, pneumonia and skin issues can also be complications of COVID-19. Sometimes, people don’t experience any symptoms at all.
If you start to notice any signs of infection, call your doctor. If you think you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, get tested and stay isolated from other people. Additionally, be sure to notify anyone else you may have been in contact with.
How to protect your eyes during the pandemic
If you wear contacts, experts recommend switching to glasses for an added layer of protection against COVID-19.
“Glasses can provide barrier protection against splashes or droplets, so in theory they could protect from SARS-CoV-2 exposure,” Lucy Wilson, a professor in the department of emergency health services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, previously told HuffPost. “Mucous membranes, including in the eye area, are a common way the coronavirus can enter the body.”
Wearing glasses may also help reduce how often you touch your eyes, especially as a contact wearer. Sanitize them often by cleaning them with soap and water. (And here are some tips if they fog up when you wear them with a face mask.)
Additionally, try to avoid rubbing your eyes, especially when you’re out in public. Continue to wash or disinfect your hands regularly. And stay home and keep your distance from others if you have signs of an eye infection ― especially if it could be connected to COVID-19.
This story has been updated to include a new report from White House doctors about Pence’s eye.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.