Are Red Eyes a Symptom of Coronavirus? Nurse Claims Patients Look Like They're Wearing Red Eye Shadow But Doctors Stress It's Too Early to Say

A nurse who has treated coronavirus patients has spoken of how the sickest people she dealt with had red eyes. But experts have told Newsweek it is too early in the outbreak of the new bug to know whether this is a symptom of COVID-19.

Chelsey Earnest of the Life Care Center in hard-hit Kirkland, 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."

Earnest said, "We've had patients that just had the red eyes as the only symptom that we saw and go to the hospital and pass away."

The nurse said the disaster medical control physician would ask her if patients "have the red eyes."

"And I will say yes. And he'll say, 'I'll find you a bed.' It's just something about this, the way that it affects these patients," she said.

Earnest's experiences mirror a warning from the American Academy of Ophthalmology to its staff of several reports that the virus is thought to cause a type of conjunctivitis indistinguishable from those caused by other germs. It stated patients who have conjunctivitis, fever and respiratory symptoms — like a cough and shortness of breath — who have recently travelled to coronavirus hotspots both in the U.S. and abroad "could represent cases of COVID-19."

Dr. Joshua Barocas, assistant professor of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, told Newsweek conjunctivitis is common in those with upper respiratory illnesses as our eyes, ears, nose, throat, and lungs are connected "so viruses (even common ones) can cause a constellation of symptoms in those locations." Red eyes can be a sign of infection or allergies, he said.

The earliest reports of coronavirus patients with red eyes come from China "where a minority of people with confirmed COVID-19 infection also had 'conjunctival congestion,'" he said.

But Barocas argued, "As of now, we do not know enough to say that it is completely consistent with COVID-19 infection though it could certainly be a symptom."

Dr. Sean T. O'Leary, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, similarly stressed to Newsweek that reports of COVID-19 patients with conjunctivitis "are in the minority" and we should be careful about drawing conclusions from the experiences of a single or a few patients, he said.

"The problem with doing so is that it may add further confusion to an already confusing situation," O'Leary said.

Many viruses which also cause conjunctivitis are currently circulating, O'Leary said, and it's known that many people suffering from COVID-19 also have another virus.

"The amount of coinfection varies from report to report, but has been as high as half in some cases," he said. "So, for example, it may be that patients described had both COVID-19 and another virus known to cause red eyes. It's difficult to know. To my knowledge, there have been no reports of red eyes or conjunctivitis as the first symptom or only symptom of COVID-19."

Asked whether the general public should be worried about red eyes as a potential symptom of COVID-19 infection, O'Leary and Barocas were split but agreed everyone should do their best to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading.

Barocas said, "Red eyes alone are not enough to diagnose the infection, but may trigger other screening questions such as fevers, cough, shortness of breath and possible exposure to a known COVID infected person."

He added, "We are asking the general public to monitor for signs and symptoms of upper respiratory illness at this point — cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, and, yes, red eyes.

"If any of those symptoms are present, it is important to contact a medical professional."

O'Leary said, "Regarding the general public looking out for red eyes, definitely not. The best course at this point is to focus on prevention of the spread of this virus. If you're sick, don't go out unless you need to get medical attention. For everyone, wash your hands frequently and practice social distancing. The more we can slow the spread of this virus, the more lives we will save."

Barocas also stressed, "The best way to limit the spread of this infection is to stay home as much as possible, practice good hand hygiene, and practice social and physical distancing of at least 6 feet.

"As always, it is vital that people practice good hand hygiene, surface cleaning in their homes with household cleaners, and are washing their hands regularly. We also ask that people avoid touching their face, especially if there are symptoms or not. If people do go outside, we are asking that they exercise caution so that they limit their potential exposure."

According to Johns Hopkins University and as shown in the graphic by Statista below, there are more than 472,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. More than 21,300 people have died since the virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and almost 115,000 people are known to have recovered.

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A graph by Statista showing recoveries from COVID-19. Statista

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

  • If you feel unwell (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and call local health authorities in advance.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask 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 mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.

This article has been updated with a graph.