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Face shields, eye goggles advised to prevent COVID-19 spread

man wearing a face shield to protect from coronavirus

If you’ve seen a health care provider recently, you’ve probably noticed them wearing a face shield or eye goggles in addition to a mask. 

Do face or eye shields help reduce the spread of COVID-19 virus more than masks alone?

Absolutely, according to the top medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force, Anthony Fauci, MD, and Deborah Birx, MD.

Dr. Fauci: If you have an eye or face shield, use it

On July 29, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leading expert on COVID-19 told ABC News that if you really want the best protection from the virus, all mucosal surfaces of the face should be shielded — that includes the surface of the eyes as well as the nose and mouth.

Dr. Fauci noted that though eye and face shields aren’t universally recommended at this time, “if you really want to be complete, you should probably use it if you can.”

Dr. Birx: Masks and face shields protect in different ways

The following day, on “Fox & Friends,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, also recommended the use of face shields, explaining that masks and face or eye shields protect against the spread of COVID-19 in different ways.

She pointed out that masks are worn primarily to protect others, less for the person wearing the mask. The mask reduces the spray of droplets from the mouth of a person who may not have symptoms of COVID-19 but is carrying the virus and can spread it among others.

On the other hand, eye goggles and face shields provide a physical barrier to protect the wearer from contracting the virus from others and the environment.

Face masks provide a second benefit as well, according to Dr. Birx: They may reduce how frequently a person touches their eyes and nose throughout the day, which also might help reduce the spread of the virus.

SEE RELATED: A face mask reduces coronavirus transmission but doesn't protect the eyes

How COVID-19 spreads through the eyes 

The conjunctiva is a thin, clear mucous membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelids and the white portion of the eyeball. The conjunctiva is kept moist by our tears.

Like the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth, the conjunctiva can be an entry point for coronavirus into the body.

Once in the conjunctiva and tear film, COVID-19 can be spread to others by rubbing your eyes and transferring the virus to other objects or directly to people with your fingers. 

Also, coronavirus in the eye may spread from your eyes to your nose, throat and lungs. This is because our tears drain from the surface of our eyes into our nose and throat through a small drainage channel called the nasolacrimal duct. (If you pull down your lower eyelid, you can see the small opening of this duct on the eyelid margin near your nose.)

From the nose and throat, the coronavirus can be inhaled into the lungs, causing respiratory distress and other symptoms of the disease.

In some cases, COVID-19 infection can also cause an inflammation of the eye called conjunctivitis. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include redness, swelling and a watery or mucous discharge from the eye.

SEE RELATED: Coronavirus transmission through the eyes

Keep your face shield clean and safe

If you wear goggles or an eye or face shield, keep in mind that you will likely be touching it frequently during the day to adjust it or put it on and take it off. So be sure to clean the device often and thoroughly with streak-free cleaner or water.

If you use a disinfecting cleaner or alcohol, test the effect on a corner of the shield first to make sure it doesn’t damage the surface.

Also, avoid rubbing a dry face shield with a dry cloth or anything abrasive. Face shields tend to be made of materials that become scratched more easily than eyeglass lenses.

Finally, store your eye and face shield in a clean, safe place where it doesn’t rub against other objects that might scratch or contaminate it.

Where to buy eye and face shields

Like masks, availability of eye and face shields may be limited during the coronavirus pandemic. Try an online search for “face shields near me.” Some websites offer instructions for making your own face shield out of a sheet of clear acetate and other materials.

You can find face shields, masks, goggles and more here.

Use multiple defenses against COVID-19

While goggles and eye or face shields provide an added measure of protection against the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to diligently use multiple protective measures to stay as safe as possible.

These include frequent hand washing, frequent disinfection of surfaces (especially in the kitchen, bathrooms and other high-traffic areas in the home), wearing a clean mask in public, and following social distancing recommendations.

When to get tested and see a doctor

Currently, there are no official guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) regarding when you should get tested if you believe you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

The CDC does not have guidelines for when, but they do recommend contacting your local healthcare provider if you notice symptoms of COVID-19. Testing decisions are determined by state and local health departments and your healthcare provider.

When asked this week by ABC News, the window Dr. Fauci recommended was “no earlier than three [days] or no later than five or six," since the incubation period for getting symptoms of the disease after being exposed to COVID-19 is “about five days.”

Whether or not you believe you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, see an eye doctor immediately if you show signs of conjunctivitis, as some types of eye inflammation can be vision-threatening.

Also, if you currently wear contact lenses, be sure to use caution and thoroughly wash your hands before applying and removing your lenses. 

Better still, you may want to discontinue wearing contact lenses altogether and switch to eyeglasses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so may help you reduce how frequently you touch your face and eyes during the day, and wearing eyeglasses may provide at least some shield to protect your eyes from environments that might contain airborne coronavirus.

SEE RELATED: 7 ways to avoid foggy glasses when wearing a face mask

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more