Itchy Eyes? How to Tell if it’s the Arcturus COVID Strain or Allergies

  • ​This month federal health organizations released an additional booster vaccine to individuals at greatest risk for COVID-19 as doctors and scientists are closely monitoring the new Arcturus variant of COVID or XBB.1.16.
  • The Arcturus strain can present with a new symptom – conjunctivitis.
  • Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is irritation of the eye and the eyelid – oftentimes associated with viruses, allergies, or bacterial infections.

While many of the previous strains of COVID-19 have presented with classic symptoms of cough, congestion, body aches, and loss of smell, there is a new strain called Arcturus, which can present with a novel symptom – conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye.

“There are two distinctive characteristics of Arcturus,” says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

“First, fever has not been a predominant feature of COVID, but it is with this strain. Also, the other distinguishing feature is conjunctivitis or, as some people call it, pink eyes.”

Conjunctivitis is irritation of the eye and the eyelid – oftentimes associated with viruses, allergies, or bacterial infections.

This condition concerns the outside layer of the eye called the conjunctiva. When it becomes inflamed, it results in tearing of the eye and possible blurring of vision. It can also give you the sensation of eyeball grittiness and itchiness.

“As with other episodes of viral conjunctivitis, although this is as bothersome as it can be [result] with tearing and blurry vision for about a week or so, it will heal, and it seems to heal without consequences and no long-term impairment of vision or any other complications,” Schaffner told Healthline.

Although there are three main categories of conjunctivitis, bacterial, viral and allergic, it is sometimes difficult to figure out which one you have.

Bacterial conjunctivitis includes discharge from the eye and oftentimes has a thick or crusted discharge on the eyelashes and within the eye. Viral and allergic can be very similar in that they have a clear tearing as well as itchiness of the eye.

It can be a bit challenging to tell the difference between viral and allergic conjunctivitis as seasonal allergies have arrived and they can result in similar symptoms.

“The only way to truly distinguish between a viral conjunctivitis, like COVID, or allergies, or a bacterial conjunctivitis is an evaluation by an eye doctor using special dyes and equipment,” says Nicholas Onken, OD, assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry.

“We will ask questions such as when it started, which eyes are being affected, if the patient has other symptoms, recent exposure to sick people, and what kind of discharge there is,” he said.

Like many medical conditions, there is an overlap between the types and symptoms one may experience, so seeing a medical provider is important. If you are experiencing conjunctivitis symptoms, it would be beneficial to test yourself for COVID-19.

There has not been a documented correlation scientifically between Arcturus and conjunctivitis but rather anecdotal evidence from practicing providers. Throughout the world, physicians are seeing itchy conjunctivitis, especially in children who test positive for COVID-19.

Many viruses already cause features of conjunctivitis. For example, one of the most common causes of conjunctivitis is adenovirus. As we know with COVID-19, there are many symptoms associated with this infection, and conjunctivitis associated with a viral illness can be a common feature.

Although a peer-reviewed scientifically indicated correlation has not been made, there have been enough cases of conjunctivitis with COVID-19 that it is very plausible. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has also indicated that conjunctivitis can be one of the manifestations of COVID-19.

Since COVID can present with eye symptoms, it should be noted that glasses and contacts don’t have any known benefits or harms with the illness.

“We do not have enough data to definitively say that glasses help protect against COVID or that wearing contact lenses raises your risk for contracting it,” Onken tells Healthline.

The World Health Organization considers this new strain a “variant under monitoring” in March and can grow rapidly in comparison to other circulating variations. This variation has been identified in over 30 countries around the world and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is responsible for approximately 10% of cases in the United States.

Although this current strain makes up only a small percentage of cases in the US, India is seeing Arcturus as the predominant strain, lending to the idea that it could happen in the United States as well.

While Arcturus does have a unique symptom of conjunctivitis, the WHO currently classifies its overall risk assessment as low for this strain. Meaning, there have been “no early signals of increasing in severity” with Arcturus.

As the number of COVID-19 cases has remained steady in the US, hospitals throughout the country have not seen large upticks in hospitalizations or death.

Not everybody who contracts Arcturus will develop the features of conjunctivitis.

However, those who do will likely be able to pass the symptoms of conjunctivitis as the illness ends as the symptoms of tearing of the eye, itchiness, and occasional blurry vision are all self-limited.

Onken advises “if we handle our glasses or contact lenses without washing our hands, we might accidentally become infected, and if you develop symptoms of eye redness, discharge, light sensitivity, itching or pain, or changes in vision, discontinue wearing contact lenses, if that applies to you, and seek help from an eye doctor as soon as you can.”

Despite the many symptoms of COVID-19, many of the classic symptoms, such as coughing, body aches, chills, and even loss of taste or smell, still exist.

As we are now out of the pandemic stage of COVID-19, it’s important to note that many of the same hygiene techniques are still important to prevent the spread of this virus.

“This virus is not going away and it’s going to mutate and that means we have to keep our vaccinations up to date as well,” said Schaffner.

If you have conjunctivitis from allergies you may notice, redness, burning, or itchy eyes. You might also have a feeling of dirt or grit in your eyes, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

You can treat this symptom of seasonal allergies with over-the-counter eye drops, allergy shots or prescription medication from a physician. To cut down on these symptoms, the AAFA recommends washing your hands with soap and water before touching your eyes, keeping pets out of the bedroom, using an air filter to reduce pollen in the house and wearing sunglasses and a large hat to reduce pollen exposure when outside.

Dr. Rajiv Bahl, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.com.

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