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Coronavirus: COVID and your eyes

Woman wearing mask to prevent spread of virus

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world and touched millions of lives in the process. Learning more about how it spreads, the possible symptoms and how it relates to your eyes can reduce the chances that you or your loved ones become infected with this virus.

This version of a coronavirus, which goes by the scientific name SARS-CoV-2, is one of seven known types of coronavirus.

These common viruses can infect animals such as bats, cats, camels and cattle, but others — like the COVID-19 coronavirus — can infect people too.

The “original” version of this coronavirus was first discovered in December 2019 and continues to mutate into different versions of itself. Sometimes, these mutations spread more easily or lead to a higher rate of serious infections.

What does COVID-19 feel like?

COVID-19 symptoms often include some level of mild to severe respiratory illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Symptoms usually show up between two and 14 days after someone is exposed to the virus.

The coronavirus can trigger an illness as minor as a common cold — or trigger no symptoms at all (asymptomatic infection). More serious cases of COVID, though, can lead to bronchitis, pneumonia and even kidney failure. Severe cases can be life-threatening.

The elderly or those with certain pre-existing conditions are generally at a higher risk of severe illness.

The CDC lists the following possible symptoms:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Cough

  • Tiredness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Headache

  • Body aches

  • Loss of smell or taste

  • Sore throat

  • Stuffy or runny nose

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

Some symptoms are more serious, and you should seek medical care immediately if you develop any of them, the CDC says. They include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Pain or pressure in the chest

  • Confusion

  • Inability to wake or stay awake

  • Skin, lips or nail beds (where your nail meets the skin) that start to look pale, gray or blue

SEE RELATED: Coronavirus eye symptoms

IF YOU’RE NOT FEELING WELL... Call your family physician. If you think an eye or vision problem is related to the coronavirus, call an eye doctor. But be sure to call ahead — many health care and eye care offices have changed their walk-in appointment policies since the pandemic began.

How is the new coronavirus related to your eyes?

Our eyes may play a role in the spread and prevention of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but the relationship between the coronavirus and your eyes is a complicated one.

Coronavirus mainly spreads through the airborne respiratory droplets that leave your mouth when you cough, sneeze, laugh or even talk. The droplets are inhaled through another person’s nose or mouth and can lead to an infection.

This is how the flu virus usually spreads, too.

Droplets can also enter through your eyes in one of two ways:

  • Droplets land directly on your eyes.

  • You touch your eyes without washing your hands, spreading the virus from your hand to the area near or on either eye.

The fluid-lined surfaces of your eyes, nose and mouth are known as mucous membranes and offer an easy pathway for viruses to enter your body.

This is why the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with warm water and soap.

SEE RELATED: Face masks don’t protect your eyes

Coronavirus and conjunctivitis (pink eye)

Certain eye problems have been connected to the coronavirus. 

In a study published in BMJ Open Ophthalmology, researchers found the three most common eye symptoms experienced by people with COVID-19 were:

The eye symptoms lasted less than two weeks for 80% of the participants in the study.

All three of these eye symptoms are commonly associated with an eye condition called conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane that covers the inside of each eyelid and the white part of each eye. Viral pink eye can occur with other upper respiratory infections (colds, flus, etc.) and may be a symptom of the COVID-19 virus as well.

A recent study of hospitals across China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found red, infected eyes in nine of 1,099 patients (0.8%) diagnosed with COVID-19.

Another study of 30 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in The Journal of Medical Virology saw one patient diagnosed with conjunctivitis.

This information shows that, while pink eye is an uncommon symptom, it can happen.

SEE RELATED: Can coronavirus (or a cold or flu) cause pink eye?

Doctor believes he contracted COVID through his eyes

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist at Peking University, believes he contracted COVID while treating patients without eye protection.

Wang reported that his left eye became inflamed, followed by a fever and a buildup of mucus in his nose and throat. He tested positive for COVID-19 soon after.

According to the South China Morning Post, Wang thinks the virus entered his left eye because he wasn’t wearing protective eyewear.

Dr. Jan Evans Patterson, professor of medicine and pathology in the Long School of Medicine’s infectious diseases division at UT Health San Antonio, confirmed that a situation like Wang’s could potentially happen.

In Wang’s situation, she says, respiratory droplets from an infected person might have reached his eyes or other mucous membranes.

Generally, coronavirus transmission comes with so many unknowns that it’s “plausible but unlikely” to contract it through hand-to-eye contact, says Dr. Stephen Thomas, chief of infectious diseases at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.

Glasses may offer some protection from coronavirus transmission

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends contact lens wearers temporarily switch to glasses as a way to reduce their risk of contracting the coronavirus. Their reasoning is that contact lens wearers touch their eyes more often than people wearing glasses.

The American Optometric Association (AOA), though, says contact lenses are safe as long as the wearer follows directions for proper lens care.

Glasses and sunglasses don’t offer a complete barrier from respiratory droplets sprayed toward your eyes. Safety glasses, which protect the exposed sides and the area around your eyes, may offer better protection.

One study went so far as to say that protective eyewear “might be the missing key” in the fight against coronavirus transmission.

The WHO specifically recommends safety glasses or face shields for anyone providing regular care for people with COVID-19. However, it's best to wear both a shield (or safety glasses) and a mask together.

SEE RELATED: How do contacts and glasses affect coronavirus spread?

How contagious is the new coronavirus?

The COVID-19 coronavirus is very contagious. It appears to spread much easier than viruses that cause the seasonal flus we’re used to.

Someone who has COVID-19 may be contagious longer than someone who has the flu. The CDC notes that:

  • Someone with the flu is usually contagious for one day before they show symptoms and up to seven days after.

  • Someone with COVID-19 can be contagious up to two days before they show symptoms and as many as 10 days after.

Both illnesses are mostly spread through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking. But there is a possible difference: COVID-19 may also be spread through the aerosol route, when tiny droplets stay in the air and infect others.

SEE RELATED: Coronavirus transmission through the eyes

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

Health care professionals can diagnose a coronavirus infection through lab tests that check respiratory, blood or other bodily fluid samples.

Is there a vaccine for the new coronavirus?

Three COVID-19 vaccines are currently authorized for use in the United States. They’re made by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer (BioNTech), Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (Janssen).

The CDC emphasizes the safety of these vaccines, noting that each one is part of “the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.” They recommend that people sign up for a vaccine as soon as they’re eligible in their state.

Production and distribution of these vaccines continues to increase, and even more vaccines could soon be authorized for use.

READ MORE about COVID-19 vaccines and the Delta variant

How can you lower your risk of contracting coronavirus?

The CDC has set up a website with the most up-to-date information related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The CDC’s recommended steps to prevent illness include:

Clean your hands often

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, eaten, used the restroom, blown your nose, coughed or sneezed.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, but especially with unwashed hands.

Reduce your exposure

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Stay home if you’re sick, unless you need medical care.

Cover coughs and sneezes

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow.

  • Throw used tissues in the trash.

  • Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after coughing or sneezing.

  • Wear a face mask in public that covers your mouth and nose.

Clean and disinfect surfaces

Current evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus may stay active anywhere from hours to days on a surface, depending on the surface, according to the CDC.

At least some coronavirus can potentially remain viable (capable of infecting someone) for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, The Washington Post reports, citing research by a laboratory that is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Cleaning dirty surfaces, followed by disinfection, is best practice for preventing the contact spread of COVID-19 (and other viral illnesses) in household and community settings.

How to dress to limit the spread of COVID-19

If you’re heading out to the grocery store, walking the dog or getting some exercise, wear a cloth face mask whenever you’re in a public place. It doesn’t have to be fashionable, it just has to help block transmission of the virus.

This is true even if you don’t feel like you have COVID-19, since it’s possible to contract and spread the coronavirus without experiencing any signs or symptoms of the disease.

READ MORE: Should you have cataract surgery during the pandemic?

Human coronavirus types. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated February 2020.

Susceptibility to SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 from animal health perspective. Open Veterinary Journal. August 2020.

Symptoms of COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated February 2021.

Coronavirus. World Health Organization. Accessed April 2021.

Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19​. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 2021.

Coronavirus disease 2019 vs. the flu. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Updated April 2021.

Sore eyes as the most significant ocular symptom experienced by people with COVID-19. BMJ Open Ophthalmology. November 2020.

Clinical characteristics of coronavirus disease 2019 in China. The New England Journal of Medicine. Updated March 2020.

Evaluation of coronavirus in tears and conjunctival secretions of patients with SARS‐CoV‐2 infection. Journal of Medical Virology. February 2020.

SARS-CoV-2: Eye protection might be the missing key. The Lancet. February 2021.

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