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Red itchy eyes: Is it allergies or a new COVID variant?

Most cases of the newest Omicron variant have been detected in India, though it has popped up in several other countries, including in the southeast U.S.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There's a new COVID-19 variant spreading throughout the country, and it may be causing an unusual symptom we haven't seen before.

The variant XBB.1.16, dubbed "Arcturus" by trackers online, was elevated to a "variant of interest" by the World Health Organization on April 17.

Most cases of XBB.1.16, which is the newest variant of Omicron, have been detected in India, though it has popped up in several other countries, including in the southeast region of the U.S.

In addition to the typical cough and cold symptoms associated with COVID, Indian health experts say they've noticed a symptom in children that seems to be unique to this variant: conjunctivitis.

It's too early to make any definitive links between the COVID variant and pink eye. Still, Raj Rajnarayanan, a top COVID variant tracker, told Fortune there are “lots of anecdotals of pediatric conjunctivitis in India” right now. 


The CDC lists symptoms of conjunctivitis as:

  • Pink or red eyes
  • Swelling
  • Increased tear production
  • Itching, irritation or burning
  • Crusting of the eyelids and lashes

However, it's important to note that it's also allergy season. Allergens like pollen can trigger red, watery eyes, too.

If you aren't sure what's causing your eyes to itch, doctors say it's a good idea to take a COVID test, just in case.

“If you’ve got red, itchy eyes, and you think it’s allergies or just a cold, just take a COVID test to be sure,” health department commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told NBC Chicago. “Overall, this is still all omicron, which is good news if you’re up-to-date with your COVID vaccines.”

According to the latest CDC data, XBB.1.16 now accounts for 8% of COVID cases in the southeast U.S. region. Helix, a surveillance company that works with the CDC, said the variant makes up as much as 5% of new COVID cases in Florida, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports. 

Florida reported 7,382 COVID-19 cases for the week of April 7 — significantly fewer than the 17,329 cases reported the week of Feb. 3. More than 7.5 million COVID cases have been reported in Florida since the start of the pandemic.

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