How COVID-19 Impacts the Eyes

The most common symptoms that are associated with a SARS-CoV-2 infection are typically fatigue, fever and a dry cough. However, a number of patients who have been diagnosed with the virus have reported symptoms related to their eyes. These have usually been conflated with a broad conjunctivitis diagnosis, but not all ocular symptoms experienced can be attributed to that definition.

Investigators at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, sought out to discover the type, frequency and duration of ocular symptoms. The study, published in BMJ Open Ophthalmology, asked participants diagnosed with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to fill out an online questionnaire.

“This is the first study to investigate the various eye symptoms indicative of conjunctivitis in relation to COVID-19, their time frame in relation to other well-known COVID-19 symptoms and their duration,” Shahina Pardhan, lead author on the study said.

The questionnaire asked what symptoms the participants experienced, the amount of time their symptoms were experienced and compared them with other known symptoms of COVID-19. It also explored if the participants were chronic sufferers of the ocular symptoms and, if so, if they had experienced the same symptoms during their COVID-19 illness.

The findings reported that just 5% of the participants stated that they had sore eyes prior to having COVID-19, while 16% reported having the issue as one of their symptoms during their infection. Photophobia, a sensitivity to light, was reported in 18% of the participants, although this was only a 5% increase from pre-COVID reports. 83% of the people who filled out the questionnaire said that their ocular symptoms happened within two weeks of their other COVID-19 symptoms, and 80% said their eye problems lasted less than 2 weeks.

“While it is important that ocular symptoms are included in the list of possible COVID-19 symptoms, we argue that sore eyes should replace ‘conjunctivitis’ as it is important to differentiate from symptoms of other types of infections, such as bacterial infections, which manifest as mucous discharge or gritty eyes,” Pardhan said. “This study is important because it helps us understand more about how COVID-19 can infect the conjunctiva and how this then allows the virus to spread through the body.”