Is Eye Pain a Symptom of Coronavirus? Google Searches for 'My Eyes Hurt' up in Areas With High COVID-19 Rates

The number of people googling "my eyes hurt" has increased in the areas where more cases of COVID-19 have been reported, a data scientist has found.

By looking at search trends, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, found there had been a spike in people looking for information on eye pain in the previous two weeks. These were "almost exclusively" in areas with high coronavirus rates, he wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Areas include New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have all been severely impacted by the pandemic.

How the eyes are affected by COVID-19 is being investigated. There is some research to suggest conjunctivitis is a symptom of the new coronavirus. In a report looking at the ocular characteristics of the disease published in JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers from China looked at 38 patients, 12 of who had some changes to their eyes while also diagnosed with COVID-19. Problems included the eyes being excessively watery, conjunctival congestion, and swelling of the tissue lining eyelids and surface of the eye. These symptoms were often found in people with more severe manifestations of the disease.

A nurse treating COVID-19 patients also said many of the people whose health had been impacted hardest appeared to have red eyes. Chelsey Earnest of the Life Care Center, Washington, told CNN: "It's something that I witnessed in all of [the patients]. They have, like ... allergy eyes. The white part of the eye is not red. It's more like they have red eye shadow on the outside of their eyes."

It is thought pink eye is a symptom of coronavirus in between 1 and 3 percent of patients. In a study of over 1,000 COVID-19 patients in China published in the NEJM, researchers found "conjunctival congestion" was present in around 0.8 percent of patients.

Stephens-Davidowitz said eye pain has not had a huge amount of attention as a potential symptom of coronavirus. Compared with searches for pink eye, there was a far greater correlation between COVID-19 cases and eye pain. "In fact, all eye-related complaints except pain that I looked at show little-to-no relationship with COVID-19 rates," he wrote.

"There is also some evidence for eye pain as a symptom of COVID-19 from searches in other parts of the world. Notably, searches for eye pain rose above fourfold in Spain between the middle of February and the middle of March and rose about 50 percent in Iran in March," he wrote. "In Italy, searches for "bruciore occhi" ("burning eyes") were five times their usual levels in March."

Stephens-Davidowitz said the searches for eye pain do not appear to be the result of allergies, as there is no relationship with pollen concentrations. He added the increased screen time from being at home more also does not appear to be involved in the search data. "I think search data offers suggestive evidence that eye pain can be a symptom of the disease," he wrote, adding that searches for eye pain are still far lower than for other symptoms of COVID-19, such as loss of smell.

"Nonetheless, doctors and public health officials should probably look closely at the relationship between COVID-19 and eye pain. If nothing else, we need to understand why there is frequently a large uptick in people telling Google that their eyes hurt when known cases of COVID-19 in a location rise to extremely high levels."

There is evidence to suggest coronavirus can spread via the eyes, with the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both advising people avoid touching their eyes with unwashed hands. A study due to appear in the journal Ophthalmology found there was a low risk of the virus being spread via tears. However, as the American Association of Ophthalmology (AAO) notes: "There is also evidence for SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] RNA in tears of COVID-19 patients with conjunctivitis, although infectious virus has not yet been cultured from the conjunctiva of any COVID-19 patient."

Advice issued by the AAO eye pain appears to be a "less specific" symptom of coronavirus. It said ophthalmologists should be aware of the potential link between conjunctivitis and COVID-19. "Because conjunctivitis is a common condition overall, and patients with conjunctivitis frequently present to eye clinics or emergency departments, it may happen that ophthalmologists are the first providers to evaluate patients possibly infected with COVID-19," the AAO said. "It is possible—but not proven—that a patient with COVID-19-associated conjunctivitis could have infectious virus in their ocular secretions."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC.
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.