According to experts with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, protecting your eyes is crucial to slowing the spread of the new coronavirus. While it’s rare, a new study shows that coronavirus may cause pink eye in a small number of patients, and the disease can spread through the eyes. This suggests that contact lens wearers — who touch their eyes more frequently than non-wearers — may be at higher risk. Here’s what you need to know to limit your eye exposure, protect yourself, and help others.
How coronavirus can spread through the eyes
When someone with coronavirus coughs, talks, sneezes or even breathes, virus particles can spray into another person’s face. You’re most likely to inhale those droplets through your mouth or nose, but they can also enter through your eyes. In addition, you can become infected by touching something with the virus on it, such as a light switch or doorknob, and then touching your eyes.
Coronavirus and pink eye
Health officials believe viral pink eye, or conjunctivitis, develops in about 1 to 3 percent of people with coronavirus. Symptoms of pink eye include redness, swelling, or a discharge in one or both eyes. It is not common to develop pink eye from coronavirus. But, if you have any of these symptoms along with a fever and cough, if you’ve recently traveled from an area with a known outbreak, or if you’ve been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case, call your doctor.
Note that during our spring allergy season, pink eye can often be confused for normal allergies. If you have itchy or burning eyes only with no fever or cough, you’re likely suffering from allergies caused by pollen in the air. Viral pink eye usually doesn’t cause itching. Allergy sufferers are also likely to have other classic signs of allergies, like sneezing or a runny nose.
Contact lens use and coronavirus
Contact lens wearers touch their eyes more than the average person, which can increase risk for contracting a virus. Especially with spring allergies and dry eye symptoms, contacts can exacerbate irritated eyes, causing you to rub. If you tend to touch your eyes a lot when wearing your contacts, consider switching to glasses. This can decrease irritation, and glasses will force you to pause before touching your eyes. Corrective lenses or sunglasses may also provide a small level of protection from infected respiratory droplets, although safety goggles offer stronger defense.
If you do choose to wear contacts, following proper contact care and hygiene is more important than ever. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water and dry them with a lint-free towel before handling your contacts. Use the contact solution recommended by your eye care professional, and replace your contacts per the recommended guidelines. Keep your contact lens case clean and replace it regularly as well, ideally once per month. Finally, minimize contact with water—remove lenses before showering or swimming, and do not rinse or store your contacts in tap water.
Tips to protect your eyes during the COVID-19 pandemic
We know there’s a lot of concern about coronavirus, but common sense precautions can significantly reduce your risk of getting infected. Of course, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is to practice safe social distancing. Wash your hands frequently, follow good contact lens hygiene and avoid rubbing your eyes. If you feel an urge to itch or rub, use a tissue instead of your fingers. Dry eyes can lead to more rubbing, so you may wish to use moisturizing eye drops, also known as artificial tears, to help. Always wash your hands before and after touching your eyes. And, new CDC guidelines also recommend wearing a non-medical mask or cloth face covering in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies).
If you end up developing viral pink eye, you can usually self-treat at home. Stop wearing your contacts, and use a new pair when you’re better—your old contacts may re-infect you if you wear them again. Stop wearing eye makeup and get new makeup when your eyes are healthy. Also try over-the-counter painkillers, lubricating eye drops, and a warm, damp washcloth over the eyes to reduce pain.
When to call your ophthalmologist
You should call your ophthalmologist right away if your symptoms have continued for a week or more, or are getting worse. Also call your doctor if your eye is producing a lot of pus or mucus, you’re having trouble seeing, you become sensitive to light, or if you have any other symptoms of an infection—like fever or cough.
For everyone’s health and safety, ophthalmologists and other doctors are being urged to limit contact with patients during the coronavirus pandemic except for urgent or emergency care. Fortunately, many eye care providers like Florida Eye Specialists offer telemedicine visits, so you can schedule your appointment and talk to a doctor from the comfort of home. We know how important your vision is, so don’t take any risks. If you have questions, call your eye care provider today.
This column was written for and published in the Ponte Vedra Recorder. The original column is available here.