Coronavirus patients’ EYES could be contagious for WEEKS, study suggests

Coronavirus can linger in the eyes for weeks on end, according to a newly-published case report. 

Researchers at the National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Italy found that virus persisted in the eyes of one 65-year-old woman for 21 days after she first developed symptoms. 

Reports have emerged of people getting pink eye with coronavirus across the globe – but the number of patient affected by the symptom remains quite low. 

Although coronavirus primarily spreads from person-to-person via droplets of saliva and mucus from coughing and sneezing (and possibly talking and breathing), the new study underscores why avoiding touching your face and eyes is crucial to stopping the spread of the disease. 

Pink eye may be an early warning sign of coronavirus – and the tears and eye mucus of infected people may transmit the virus for weeks after symptoms develop, suggests a new case study of a woman in Italy (file) 

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, can be caused by many bacteria and viruses, though the latter is more common. 

And it often comes with respiratory infections. 

In the US, pink eye first became a coronavirus concern after a nurse at the Life Care Center care home in Kirkland, Washington – where a devastating outbreak sickened more than 80 residents and 34 staff members and killed 35 people – revealed that almost every COVID-19 patient she treated there had red eyes. 

Perhaps most worryingly, she said that many of those patients showed no other signs of illness, but were eventually confirmed to have coronavirus.   


Like other coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold and that triggered SARS, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.  

  • The most common symptoms are: 
  • Fever 
  • Dry cough 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Fatigue 

Although having a runny nose doesn’t rule out coronavirus, it doesn’t thus far appear to be a primary symptom. 

Most people only become mildly ill, but the infection can turn serious and even deadly, especially for those who are older or have underlying health conditions.  

In these cases, patients develop pneumonia, which can cause: 

  • Potentially with yellow, green or bloody mucus
  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Rapid or shallow breathing 
  • Pain when breathing, especially when breathing deeply or coughing 
  • Low appetite, energy and fatigue 
  • Nausea and vomiting (more common in children) 
  • Confusion (more common in elderly people)
  • Some patients have also reported diarrhea and kidney failure has occasionally been a complication. 

Avoid people with these symptoms. If you develop them, call your health care provider before going to the hospital or doctor, so they and you can prepare to minimize possible exposure if they suspect you have coronavirus. 

Red eyes are still not listed by the CDC as a symptom of coronavirus, but its a phenomenon that’s been noted by health authorities in many nations. 

Studies have found that the eyes are one of the parts of the body that can be attacked by the virus. 

However, it seems to be a relatively uncommon occurrence. 

In a study of more than 1,000 Chinese coronavirus patients, just nine developed eye infections (accounting for less than one percent of the group), according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Only one out of 30 patients in another study developed conjunctivitis. 

It may not be common, but the eye symptom certainly can be persistent, according to the new case report on that one patient out of 30, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 

That patient had travelled from Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began in December, to Italy on January 23.  

Five days after arriving in Italy, and just one day after her symptoms began, the woman was sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. 

In addition to red, infected eyes, the woman had a dry cough, sore throat and nasal congestion, but didn’t develop a fever until several days after. 

On the third day after she was admitted to the hospital, the woman’s eyes were still red, so the team there started swabbing the woman’s eyes. 

The health care workers continued to sample her eye fluid almost every day after that. Every sample revealed RNA – genetic material – from SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Finally, on the 21st day after she came to the hospital, the virus disappeared from the woman’s eye fluid – only to reappear again five days later. 

Coronavirus was still lingering in her eyes even days after her nasal swabs were clear of its genetic material.   

Staff at LifeCare Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington (pictured) noted that many of the seniors that contracted the virus there developed red eyes

Staff at LifeCare Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington (pictured) noted that many of the seniors that contracted the virus there developed red eyes

That suggested to the researchers that the virus was continuing to make more copies of itself within the woman’s eye fluid. 

Not only does that pose a concern for the woman’s ability to clear the virus, but means that mucus and even tears from her eyes might be capable of infecting others, a phenomenon seen with SARS patients. 

‘A related implication is the importance of appropriate use of personal protective equipment for ophthalmologists during clinical examination, because ocular mucosa may be not only a site of virus entry but also a source of contagion,’ the study authors wrote. 

Perhaps even more importantly, they warned that pink eye may be an early warning sign of coronavirus, considering that the symptom appeared days before fever in the patient.