Eye pain is a fairly broad term and could be caused by a number of conditions. There are different levels of pain, ranging from severe, as you might find with an injury, to mild irritation found in conjunctivitis

Eye pain and irritation can often be associated with our environment, activities and even the seasons. Working from home, increasing our screen time for leisure during isolation, and seasonal weather changes could also be the reason people are experiencing eye pain at this time.

There are also lots of articles in the media at the moment suggesting that eye pain could be a potential symptom of coronavirus (Sars-Cov-2) and the corresponding disease, COVID-19. So we’ll talk you through the current evidence as well as other conditions that could be behind your eye pain.

Is eye pain a symptom of coronavirus?

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that sore, painful eyes are a symptom of coronavirus. Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University found that, of the 83 COVID-positive patients tested, 16% reported experiencing sore eyes and 17% experience itchy eyes.1 Most patients experienced these ocular symptoms within 2 weeks of other more common COVID-19 symptoms, and most said that they lasted for less than 2 weeks.1 So, if you’re experiencing eye soreness without other COVID symptoms, and it’s likely that the pain would be related to something else.

All of these symptoms can be caused by an eye condition called conjunctivitis. Both NHS England and The World Health Organisation (WHO) list conjunctivitis as a less common symptom of coronavirus.2, 3

Only about 1-3% of COVID-19 patients experience this, so it’s quite rare, and tends to happen in the later stages accompanying a continuous cough and fever. You can learn more about the link between conjunctivitis and coronavirus here.

Conjunctivitis can cause symptoms including:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Burning or gritty feeling
  • Discharge from one or both eyes
  • Pus that sticks to the eyelashes
  • Itchiness and redness
  • Excessive watering

Is photophobia (light sensitivity) a sign of COVID-19?

Researchers have also found a link between another symptom of conjunctivitis called photophobia (or light sensitivity) and coronavirus. A study from Anglia Ruskin University found that 18% of the COVID-positive patients tested experienced photophobia, or sensitivity to light.1 As with other ocular symptoms, most patients experienced photophobia alongside other more common COVID signs (such as a dry, persistent cough), with photophobia symptoms easing within 2 weeks.

Some experts believe that these symptoms may be more common with newer variants of coronavirus in particular (such as the B.1.1.7 strain), although this has not yet been proven with research, so further studies are needed. You can find more information on photophobia here

Is headache a symptom of coronavirus?

There are many different types of headache, with people experiencing pain behind the eyes, cluster headaches or migraines. Again, headaches are a very broad term with many potential causes.

The British Medical Journal includes headaches as a symptom in 14% of those hospitalised with COVID-19 (based on 1099 hospitalised patients in Wuhan, China) – though it would be unlikely that headache in isolation would be any cause for concern for COVID-19.4

It’s possible that headaches, particularly pain behind the eyes, might be more related to our new ways of working during this time or increased screen time for leisure. Working on a laptop out of the office environment with increased screen time getting us through isolation is more likely to be linked to digital eye strain. Read our article on how to avoid eye strain for more information.

What else could be causing eye pain during this time?

If you’re experiencing eye pain at the moment, it's more likely due to the following reasons:

Hay fever and allergies:
As we move into allergy season many people will begin to experience symptoms of hay fever, which can include sore, itchy eyes.

Digital eye strain:
As we adapt to new ways of working from home and increase screen time for leisure during isolation, this could likely be having an impact on your eyes. 

Existing eye conditions:
Things like uncorrected glasses prescription, dry eye syndrome and eye injury can all lead to sore, painful eyes.

Eye infections and inflammations including conjunctivitis.

I’m suddenly experiencing eye pain. What should I do?

If you experience any kind of eye pain, you should contact your GP or local optician. They’ll ask you some questions about your symptoms and will be able to advise you on the next steps to take.

How to ease eye pain during COVID-19

Any treatment or advice about eye pain will be related to its underlying cause. Call your local store team to start with – they’ll help you to get to the bottom of your symptoms and will recommend that you come in store for a check or speak to an expert in more detail with our RemoteCare service.

References

1. Shahina Pardhan, Megan Vaughan, Jufen Zhang, Lee Smith, Havovi Chichger (2020). Sore eyes as the most significant ocular symptom experienced by people with COVID-19: a comparison between pre-COVID-19 and during COVID-19 states [online]. Available at: https://bmjophth.bmj.com/content/5/1/e000632 [Accessed Jan 2021]

2. World Health Organization (2021). Coronavirus symptoms [Online]. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus#tab=tab_3 [Accessed 22 April 2020].

3. Public Health England, Information Sheet I: Symptoms [online]. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/south/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2020/09/2A-Info_sheetI_Symptoms_COVID19_v1.0-1.pdf [Accessed Jan 2021].

4. British Medical Journal. Covid-19: a remote assessment in primary care [Online]. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m1182/infographic [Accessed 22 April 2020].

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