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Coronavirus: How eyes may play a role in its spread

Woman wearing mask to prevent spread of virus

Our eyes may play an important role in the spread and prevention of the new coronavirus outbreak seen throughout the world, eye doctors and health experts say.

To cut your personal risk of contracting the new coronavirus, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. It is the mucous membranes (membranes that line various cavities in the body) that are most susceptible to transmission of the virus.

To avoid unknowingly infecting others with the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that Americans wear cloth face masks when out in public.

Face masks can reduce the spread of coronavirus by people who have no symptoms of the virus. Face masks, however, do not protect your eyes, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House, said.

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

How is the new coronavirus related to your eyes?

The relationship between the transmission of the coronavirus and your eyes is complicated.

It’s thought that coronavirus spreads from person to person mainly through airborne “respiratory droplets” produced when someone coughs or sneezes, much like the flu virus spreads, the CDC says. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, and possibly be inhaled into the lungs. 

These droplets also can be spread to your eyes when you touch your face and then your eyes with unwashed hands.

Medical experts are unsure whether someone can contract this virus by touching a surface or object, such as a table or doorknob, that has coronavirus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.

This is why the CDC and World Health Organization recommend diligently washing your hands for 20 seconds or more with warm water and soap.

IF YOU'RE NOT FEELING WELL... Call your family doctor. If you suspect you may have pink eye (conjunctivitis), call an eye doctor near you. It is suggested that patients do not present to medical or eye care facilities without a prior phone call to help to decrease the possible spread of the virus. A phone call allows the health facility to prepare for your visit and diagnose and treat you in a proper manner.

Doctor believes he contracted COVID through his eyes

Peking University respiratory specialist Wang Guangfa believes he contracted COVID-19 while not wearing eye protection when he treated patients at health clinics in China. Medical officials, though, say while this is possible, it may be unlikely.

Wang reported that his left eye became inflamed afterward, followed by a fever and a buildup of mucous in his nose and throat. He subsequently was diagnosed with the new coronavirus.

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, confirms that a scenario 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, though, transmission of COVID-19 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 recommends contact lens wearers switch to glasses temporarily as a way to reduce their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19, the respiratory disease that can be fatal.

Contact lens wearers touch their eyes more often than those sporting glasses, the ophthalmology group says.

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

Glasses and sunglasses don't offer a complete barrier from respiratory droplets sprayed in your direction. Safety glasses, which protect the exposed sides and the area around your eyes may offer better protection, health care experts say.

WHO specifically recommends safety glasses for people who will be providing regular care for people with COVID-19.

Coronavirus and conjunctivitis

Patients who have contracted the new coronavirus may have ocular symptoms.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane covering the eyeball. It is often referred to as “pink eye.” Conjunctivitis often presents as an infected, red, “wet and weepy” eye.

Viral conjunctivitis is known to present with upper respiratory infections (colds, flus, etc.) and may be a symptom of the COVID-19 virus. A recent study of hospitals across China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found “conjunctival congestion” or red, infected eyes in nine of 1,099 patients (0.8%) with a confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus.

A study in The Journal of Medical Virology of 30 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 had only one patient diagnosed with conjunctivitis. Based on this information, the occurrence of conjunctivitis is low.

Furthermore, the risk of transmission of the new coronavirus through tears is low, according to a new study published in Ophthalmology. Researchers tested tear samples collected from patients with COVID-19 in Singapore.

What is coronavirus?

Reports of a new coronavirus (also referred to as COVID-19) first emerged in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. 

Coronaviruses are a group of common viruses. Some affect only animals (such as bats, cats, camels and cattle), while others also affect people, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

COVID-19 can trigger ailments as minor as the common cold, or more consequential such as bronchitis, pneumonia and kidney failure. The most severe cases may be life-threatening. This is the seventh known type of coronavirus, according to the CDC.

How contagious is the new coronavirus?

Currently, it’s not known how “easily or sustainably” the virus spreads from person to person, according to the CDC, but large gatherings and events have been canceled as a public health measure to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Sports leagues have suspended operations, restaurants and bars have temporarily shuttered or switched to carry-out and delivery only, and religious services will be streamed.

Social distancing, shelter-in-place and work-from-home have become part of our vocabulary. Grocery stores have the floors marked to space carts 6 feet apart at checkout and many have put up plastic shields to protect both cashiers and shoppers.

Schools have canceled classes and switched to online courses, and museums, movie theaters and amusement parks have closed as a precaution to avoid community spread. In recent weeks, we have all become stay-at-home moms, dads and schoolchildren.

Tom Hanks and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson are just two well-known people who have contracted the coronavirus.

Coronavirus can hit anyone and most people recover.

Hanks, who returned to the U.S. after his self-quarantine, hosted the first remote Saturday Night Live. Johnson has been released from the hospital where he spent a week being treated for COVID-19.

"It is hard to find the words to express my debt to the NHS for saving my life," Johnson tweeted. "The efforts of millions of people across this country to stay home are worth it. Together we will overcome this challenge, as we have overcome so many challenges in the past."

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include a mild to severe respiratory illness accompanied by a fever, cough and breathing problems, according to the World Health Organization. Other symptoms include runny nose, sore throat and headache.

Some have reported a lack of the sense of taste or smell as an early sign — even before someone exhibits other symptoms of coronavirus.

Nurses at a Kirkland, Washington, nursing home told CNN that "red eyes" were a common symptom among the dozens of patients who died there. Seattle was the original hot spot of coronavirus cases in the United States, and the nursing home was at the epicenter of the outbreak.

Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those who are older or have other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Symptoms normally show up two to 14 days after someone has been exposed to the virus.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

Health care professionals diagnose the coronavirus through lab tests of respiratory or blood samples or other bodily fluids.

The ready availability of coronavirus tests continues to be an issue across the U.S. but some cities now have drive-thru testing facilities.

Is there a vaccine or treatment for the new coronavirus?

As of February 10, 2021, at least two COVID-19 vaccines (produced by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna) were commercially available for use internationally, and more than 170 potential vaccines were in clinical trials, according to the global vaccine alliance, Gavi.

How can you cut your risk of contracting coronavirus?

The CDC has established a site 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 — except to get medical care.

Cover coughs and sneezes

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.

  • Throw used tissues in the trash.

  • Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • Wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose if you are sick.

If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a face mask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a face mask). Face masks may be in short supply and they should be saved for health care workers, people who are sick and caregivers.

Clean and disinfect surfaces

Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, the CDC reports. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.

At least some coronavirus can potentially remain viable — capable of infecting a person — 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.

How to dress to limit exposure

According to the World Health Organization, if you have the potential of being exposed to a person with coronavirus, you should be equipped with protective eyewear, a surgical mask, medical gown, medical gloves and a disposable respirator.

And if you are heading out on a rare grocery run, walking the dog or jogging to get in some exercise, the CDC recommends you wear a cloth face mask. It doesn't have to be fashionable, it just has to help block transmission of the virus.

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