ARE YOUR EYES feeling itchier this spring than most? A new Covid variant, arcturus, might be behind it.
Otherwise known as variant XBB.1.16, this new Covid strain has been in circulation in more than 22 countries since March 2023, according to the World Health Organization. It is currently designated as a “variant under monitoring,” meaning the global risk assessment is lower than other circulating variants.
Its defining feature, though, is its new symptom: conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye, is an infection of the eyeball. “It refers to inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva which is the tissue that covers the front of the eyeball and inner eyelid,” says Christopher Starr, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.
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The “pink eye” nickname comes from the color the white portion of the eye becomes when infected. It can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, as well as allergies. Symptoms include the pink hue in the whites of the eyes, itchiness, light sensitivity, puffy or swollen eyelids, and mucous or pus discharge. As spring has sprung, and allergens are swirling at full force, many are confused as to the source of their itchy eyes. There are a few defining features that can help you decipher the mystery.
“Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis often involves both eyes equally and symmetrically, whereas infectious causes often start in one eye and then spread to the other eye over hours or days,” Starr says. “While infectious and allergic conjunctivitis can both be accompanied by upper respiratory symptoms like cough, sore throat…high fever and body aches are more associated with infectious causes.”
Researchers are not yet sure just how common this new symptom is. According to one early study, conjunctivitis was found to have a prevalence rate somewhere between 0.8 to 31.6 percent in positive Covid cases. But, Starr says to remain cautious if you do develop pink eye-like symptoms.
“I encourage everyone to have a low threshold for Covid testing with any new symptoms of illness, even if mild, and take appropriate measures to not spread it. Similarly, assuming a negative Covid test, one should have a very low threshold for visiting an eye doctor for any new cases of conjunctivitis,” he says.
In the latter situation, an eye doctor can assist in isolating the cause of the conjunctivitis, as well as provide treatments to help shorten the case and lessen the effects of the symptoms.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.