All eyes on Pence: Is pink eye a sign of COVID-19?

We were captivated by the fly. But then we saw his eye.

Diana Duong 3 minute read October 9, 2020
Vice president Mike Pence appeared to have a pink eye during the debate with Senator Kamala Harris

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential campaign debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris held on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., October 7, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

During the U.S. vice presidential debate on Wednesday evening, all eyes were on vice president Mike Pence.

The whites of his eye appeared to be a reddish-pink, and given president Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, plus the growing numbers of White House officials who are also sick, speculation raged over whether Pence had conjunctivitis (pink eye), and if it was a sign that he had the virus.

What is pink eye?

Pink eye is caused by an inflammation or infection of the membrane (conjunctiva) that lines the eyelid and covers the eyeball. The small blood vessels become inflamed creating that pinkish hue. Pink eye can occur when someone has a virus that causes a hacking cough, runny nose, and other symptoms of a common cold, flu, or allergic reaction.

Although pink eye can occur in COVID-19 patients, it is rare. In a review published in April, researchers from Italy compiled three studies and found the eye infection to be present in about one to three per cent of COVID-19 cases. It is more common among people with more severe coronavirus infection.

In another study published in February, researchers from China looked at 1,099 people with the novel coronavirus and found that 0.8 per cent had symptoms of pink eye.

This past summer, researchers from the University of Alberta first identified pink eye as a possible primary symptom of COVID-19. In a case study published in the Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology, researchers describe a 29-year-old Edmonton woman who tested positive for the virus and whose main symptom was keratoconjunctivitis.

She presented to the emergency department having developed sensitivity to light as well as a sore and swollen right eyelid, pink eye, and a clear watery discharge in her right eye. Her condition worsened over the next four days — her eye became more more painful and irritated, and she developed a runny nose, cough, and nasal congestion.

What the WHO says

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) lists conjunctivitis as a less common symptom of COVID-19, there are also many other reasons for a red eye, such as allergies, a broken blood vessel and a non COVID-19 related eye infection. Pence could have simply gotten some makeup in his eye as he prepared for the debate, as Dr. Jennifer Ashton suggested to ABC News.

Still, Pence’s red peeper reminds us to remind you that it’s important to take care of your eyes, and consider them a possible — yet uncommon — gateway for the virus to get into your body. In fact, a small study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that people who wear glasses have a lower risk of contracting the virus.

And while Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told CNN that the virus could land on eyes, it’s less likely than getting it through your nose or mouth. So it looks like the standard COVID-19 rules apply: wash hands frequently, avoid rubbing your eyes or touching your face, stay physically distant and wear a mask. 
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