As more and more of the country opens back up, you may be wondering the risks novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pose. You can cover your nose and mouth with a mask, but what about your eyes?
Coronavirus and the Eyes
Though COVID-19 is a pulmonary disease, which means it affects the respiratory system, it may also cause problems for your eyes. From possibly spreading coronavirus to developing conjunctivitis, your eyes could potentially see some severe effects.
Can I Catch Coronavirus from My Eyes?
COVID-19 is primarily spread through mucosa, the watery mucus membranes that cover many parts of the body. You probably immediately think of the mucus in your nose and mouth, but your eyes have mucosa, too. Though finding SARS-CoV-2 genes (which cause COVID-19) in tears and conjunctival secretions is not common, it appears that it can occasionally be found and affect the eyes. However, even if the virus can bind to your eyes’ surface, it would then need to make its way to the nose and mouth, then on to the lungs. Whether you can transmit the virus via eyes remains unclear, but it is likely rarer than contaminated droplets entering the respiratory tract if it is possible.
What Problems With My Eyes Can Coronavirus Cause?
According to WebMD, 1%-3% of people with COVID-19 will experience conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye. It happens when the virus infects a tissue called the conjunctiva, which covers the white part of your eye or the inside of your eyelids. If you have conjunctivitis from COVID-19, you may infect others with the virus if you touch your eyes and then touch people or surfaces without washing or disinfecting your hands.
Conjunctivitis presents itself with symptoms including red, swollen, itchy eyes. If you have conjunctivitis, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. However, if you also have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, ask your doctor what you should do. Be sure to call ahead instead of showing up in person in order to protect others in case you do, in fact, have the virus.
How Exams Will Change
Whether you are going to the eye doctor for a specific problem or just a general eye exam, be aware that offices are implementing new procedures and implementing steps to limit physical contact in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
According to the American Association of Ophthalmology, below are some changes you could encounter:
- Wearing a mask may be required.
- The clinic may ask you to wait outside instead of in a waiting room.
- Your temperature may be checked on entry into the building.
- Your doctor may use a special plastic shield and other protective equipment while they examine you.
- You may be asked to wait to speak until after your eye exam is complete.
These measures are taken to protect you, other patients and the staff from possible exposure to the virus. If you are showing symptoms of the virus, you should contact the office and let them know you need to reschedule. If you arrive sick, your doctor may send you home.
Each office will take different approaches to protect its staff and patients from COVID-19, so be sure to check with your clinic ahead of time in order to comply with its new procedures.
How to Protect Yourself
- It is also important to think about your eyes beyond your regular eye exam. During this pandemic, guarding your eyes, in addition to your hands, nose and mouth, can help slow the spread of COVID-19. The American Association of Ophthalmology suggests the following:
- Consider switching to glasses for the time being if you normally wear contacts. Wearing glasses may add a layer of protection because they shield your eyes somewhat from infected respiratory droplets. This does not provide 100% security, however, because the top, bottom and sides of your glasses are exposed, so it may be more effective to wear safety goggles if you know you will be in contact with someone who is infected.
- Stock up on eye medicine prescriptions if you can. There is no need to hoard medications, but having extra medication on hand in case you need to quarantine or if supplies become limited can be helpful. You just need enough that you can get by in case of an emergency. If your insurance allows you to get more than one month of essential eye medication, you should do so, as you would want to fully cover those two weeks you would be required to quarantine if you were infected.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes. As mentioned, your eyes do have mucosa, so touching them could potentially put you or others at risk. It can be hard to break this natural habit, but try using a tissue instead of your bare fingers when you feel the urge to itch or rub your eye. Dry eyes can lead to more rubbing, so also consider adding moisturizing drops to your routine to prevent this. But if you do touch your eyes, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.