A New COVID Strain May Cause Pink Eye — Here's What Experts Want You to Know

COVID-19 may no longer be a national emergency, but that doesn't mean the virus is any less contagious, serious, or easily transmissible. New variants are still a major cause for concern, and the latest strain, known as Arcturus, is presenting with a new symptom: pink eye.

"The XBB.1.16 subvariant of Omicron, also labeled Arcturus, is the second most prominent strain of Coronavirus circulating in the United States right now, next after Omicron," says Christina Johns, MD, a pediatric-emergency doctor and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatric Care. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring its volume, but its global risk assessment is still considered low by the World Health Organization at this time."

That said, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has confirmed an outbreak of Arcturus and warns residents to be aware of a new symptom known as conjunctivitis (aka pink eye), which causes inflammation to the membrane of the eyelid and eyeball. Pink eye typically presents with redness, itchiness, or a gritty feeling in one or both eyes, and discharge that forms a crust on the eyelid and eyelashes, per the Mayo Clinic.

Early data suggests that Arcturus is more transmissible than other strains, and anecdotally, children seem to be more affected with pink eye than adults, Dr. Johns says.

POPSUGAR talked with experts to learn more about the pink-eye outbreak and whether it's actually a new symptom of COVID-19.

Is Pink Eye a New Symptom of COVID-19?

Pink eye has been a less common, but not unheard of, symptom of previous COVID-19 strains, Dr. Johns says. "With Arcturus, pink eye has been reported more frequently in children, but it is not a new symptom of the illness as a whole," she explains.

According to a report out of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, pink eye was historically diagnosed in one to three percent of COVID-19 cases. It's too early to determine whether Arcturus is truly associated with higher rates of pink eye, but it's suggested that itchy, watery, or red eyes may be a sign of infection, and these symptoms should not just be dismissed as seasonal allergies.

Why Is the New Strain of COVID-19 Causing Pink Eye?

It's not totally understood why certain variants target specific tissues in the body over others, Dr. Johns says. "We know that the virus enters primarily through the lungs, but there is little knowledge as to why it is inciting an inflammatory response in the eyes," she explains.

That said, any respiratory virus has the capacity to cause conjunctivitis, adds Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious-disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center For Health Security. The membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelid touches the upper respiratory tract via the tear duct, and people can directly introduce the virus by rubbing their eyes, he explains. "It is not surprising that a coronavirus could have this capacity to infect conjunctival (eye) cells." But it's also not a symptom that he considers concerning.

What Are Other Symptoms of the Arcturus COVID-19 Variant?

Like the previous strains of COVID-19, the Arcturus variant often presents with fatigue, cough, muscle aches, loss of taste and/or smell, sore throat, and headache, Dr. Johns says. However, a common additional symptom of Arcturus is pink eye, which is especially prevalent in children, she explains.

Anyone can become infected with the Arcturus variant, but children seem to be more at risk of pink-eye symptoms, Dr. Johns adds. Additionally, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should be especially vigilant.

How to Treat the Arcturus COVID-19 Variant With Pink Eye

First things first. Vaccines are critical for protecting against severe symptoms and fatal disease, Dr. Adalja says. However, because the vaccine does not necessarily prevent infection, treatment for Arcturus is no different than that for other COVID-19 strains, Dr. Johns adds. You should quarantine and manage symptoms with lots of fluids, rest, and over-the-counter medicine like Tylenol, Motrin, or Advil as needed, per the CDC.

For Arcturus-related pink eye, Dr. Johns says prescribed eye drops or ointment can help alleviate discomfort and speed up recovery, so always talk with your doctor if you present symptoms. Additionally, avoid touching your eyes and frequently wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.

You can also apply a warm (but not hot!) compress to your eyes several times daily to reduce the buildup of the sticky crust that forms on your eyelashes, according to the Mayo Clinic. If your eyes are especially itchy or inflamed, a cold compress can help relieve irritation and soothe symptoms.