The new omicron variant XBB.1.16, better known as arcturus, is now responsible for around 14% of new Covid cases, latest data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emissions. That’s up from 7% just two weeks ago, making it the second most prominent strain currently circulating in America, and “on pace to become the dominant species soon,” says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health.
Like other omicron subvariants before it, arcturus is “highly contagious” but less likely to cause hospitalization or death, Parikh says, “largely due to the fact that so many people now have some form of immunity” to the original virus.
What makes arcturus unique, however, is that it “seems to cause conjunctivitis, or pink eye, more than the previous varieties,” explains Parikh.
Pink eye is an inflammation or infection of the outer membrane of the eyeball and its inner lid. It sometimes causes intense itching, burning and irritation, and often feels like a foreign body in the eye. Increased tear production, discharge of mucus or pus, and crusting of the eyelids or eyelashes are common. In rare cases, there may be decreased vision, pain, or severe sensitivity to light, but “anyone who experiences these symptoms should see an ophthalmologist,” says Kathryn Colby, MD, director of NYU Langone’s Eye Center and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. .
While pink eye often clears up within 7 to 14 days on its own, some cases of viral conjunctivitis may take 2 to 3 weeks or more to clear up, according to the CDC. Supportive treatment options include cold compresses, artificial tears, and avoiding anything that further aggravates the area, such as wearing contact lenses. “We occasionally prescribe a mild antibiotic ointment to soothe the eye and prevent a bacterial infection on top of a viral infection,” Colby adds.
The most common cause of pink eye is the common cold, “but any virus that causes an upper respiratory infection can be associated with conjunctivitis,” Colby explains. This includes previous forms of the coronavirus, but more so in the case of Arcturus. Complicating matters is that “Covid-related conjunctivitis is no different than other forms of conjunctivitis,” says Colby.
Viral conjunctivitis is usually spread when an infected person touches their eye and then an object, and another person touches that object and then touches their eye. Although this may not seem highly transferable, research shows that people touch their eyes and the environment on average 50 times every hour. That, combined with the fact that it’s allergy season, makes a bad situation worse. “The time has come when people already suffer from itchy, watery eyes and rub them frequently,” says Parikh.
Personal hygiene can help. “It’s very important when someone has conjunctivitis to wash their hands frequently and not share utensils, pillowcases or washcloths,” advises Colby. Special caution is necessary for a week or longer. “People are contagious for seven days after symptoms first appear,” says Colby.
Because of how quickly this latest strain of the virus is spreading and how contagious and inconvenient pink eye can be, Parikh says it’s a good time to consider getting informed about Covid shots. “If you didn’t have the updated booster that came out last fall,” she advises, “now is the time to get it because it will provide most immunity to the current variants.”
Forbes – Innovation