Health

Can COVID-19 Spread Through Eyes?

Fears have surfaced recently that the coronavirus can spread through eye contact but a leading optometrist says no hard data supports the theory yet and that good eye health and social distancing could mitigate those effects if that becomes the case.

Dr. Sherrol Reynolds, president of the National Optometric Association, a trade organization of minority eye doctors and students, told The Informer that “the science on getting COVID-19 is still out there.”

“Whether someone can get the virus from the eyes has not been confirmed scientifically and medically,” said Reynolds, who practices in Davie, Fla. “However, let me say that the virus itself can affect the eyes. Red eye, or conjunctivitis, has been recognized as a symptom of the coronavirus, but the eyes as an entry point is up for debate.”

The controversy over getting coronavirus through the eyes erupted recently when Dr. Joseph Fair, a virologist and epidemiologist who works as an NBC News contributor, said he got the virus that way while on an airplane full of passengers.

“I had a mask on, I had gloves on, I did my normal wipes routine but obviously you can still get it through your eyes,” Fair said May 14 on NBC’s “Today” while recovering in his hospital bed. “And of course, I wasn’t wearing goggles on the flight.”

Reynolds doesn’t dispute Fair’s account of how he got COVID-19 but said no cases of viral spread via the eyes have been medically verified.

“Dr. Joseph Fair has a lot of knowledge about pandemics,” she said. “It is my understanding that when he was on that plane, he wore a mask. And the flight was full.”

Reynolds said her fellow optometrists, doctors and scientists, are finding out more about the coronavirus virtually on the fly.

“There is so much that we are learning about this disease,” Reynolds said. “I have heard of evidence that the coronavirus is in the tears. I don’t know whether that is true or not. There is so much more we need to learn about this disease because it is new.”

Reynolds said the best way to avoid any possible risk of getting the coronavirus through the eyes is to limit possible exposure altogether.

“People should remember to practice social distancing, wash your hands constantly, clean your immediate area and wear a face mask,” she said. “This is important for African Americans because we suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus and we tend to have the triggers for it such as diabetes and hypertension more than other racial and ethnic groups. Let me say that if someone has the virus, they should wear glasses instead of goggles or contact lenses. Goggles tend to fog up quicker than glasses when wearing a face mask and contact lenses make you touch your face more often.”

Reynolds said if someone suddenly gets conjunctivitis, they need to see an eye doctor immediately and get tested for COVID-19. She notes that conjunctivitis may be a complement to other symptoms of the virus such as fever and fatigue.

Regardless of whether someone has COVID-19, Reynolds recommends that everyone should seek the services of an optometrist.

“In order to have healthy eyes, everyone should have a yearly eye exam,” she said. “African Americans should especially do this because of their high rate of glaucoma, and then there is diabetic retinopathy, and both of those ailments can lead to blindness. An eye doctor can also detect such ailments as bleeding in the eye that can be dangerous but a normal person won’t be able to see or feel its effects. Basically, the best way to fight the coronavirus, even if it is proven to come through the eyes, is to exercise and eat a healthy, nutritious diet.”

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