Evidence Based

Can You Catch Coronavirus Through Your Eyes?

COVID-19 Symptoms & Transmission

There are many different types of coronaviruses; some produce minor cold symptoms, while others can cause severe respiratory illness. COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is the newest type of coronavirus that began spreading around the world in late 2019. The virus can produce mild to severe respiratory symptoms.

COVID-19 symptoms typically show up anywhere between two to 14 days after exposure. Some people are asymptomatic. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pneumonia and/or breathing difficulties (severe cases), which can result in serious illness or death

COVID-19 is known to spread by person-to-person contact through infected respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing. In addition to droplets, the disease can spread through nose mucus and saliva. 

Can You Catch Coronavirus Through Your Eyes?

Coronavirus can spread through the eyes, just as it does through your nose and mouth. However, researchers are still studying the rate at which COVID-19 can spread through the eyes.

When an infected person with COVID-19 talks or coughs, the virus particles can spray from their nose or mouth and into your face. Depending on how close they are, you can breathe in the small droplets or they can enter your body through your eyes. 

You can also contract the virus by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. This transmission route only accounts for a small number of cases and can be prevented through regular handwashing.

Coronavirus Transmission Through Tears

Virologists are certain that COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets and mucus in coughs and sneezes. Although, they are uncertain if the virus spreads through other bodily fluids, such as your tears. 

It is believed that infected respiratory droplets and mucus have a much higher risk of transmission. In a study from May 2020, only a small percentage of patients (0 to 7.14 percent) had COVID-19 isolated in their tear films.  

In another study, a doctor discovered that samples taken from the back of the throat and nose of COVID-19 patients were full of the virus. While tear samples taken from their eyes during the same period were clear of the virus. 

Although there is a low risk of coronavirus spreading through tears, it is still crucial to guard your eyes and wash your hands often. Also, refrain from touching your nose, mouth, eyes, and face with unwashed hands to help slow the spread.  

Coronavirus and Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Conjunctivitis is the medical term for pink eye. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the thin layer of tissue covering the whites of your eye and lining your eyelids' inner portion.

viral conjunctivitis

Most types of viral conjunctivitis are associated with adenovirus. This virus causes illnesses like the common cold, pneumonia, bronchitis, and gastrointestinal issues. Viral pink eye is highly contagious.

COVID-19 can cause conjunctivitis, but this is rare. So, if you have pink eye without any other COVID-19 symptoms, do not panic. It is more likely that the condition is related to a different viral or bacterial infection.  

Eye conditions, such as eye redness, foreign body sensation, and tearing, are not common in COVID-19 patients. According to one study, less than 5 percent of patients from six different studies showed eye symptoms. Two reports showed no eye symptoms. Conjunctival symptoms more commonly affect severely ill patients. 

Keep in mind, though, that pink eye is very contagious. It can spread through the sticky or runny discharge coming from your eyes. Make sure you stay home from work for a few days if you are diagnosed with conjunctivitis. 

COVID-19 Pandemic: Safety Tips & Eye Protection 

To help slow the spread of COVID-19, practice the following:

  • Do not rub your eyes. Refrain from rubbing your eyes with unwashed hands whenever possible. Also, do not touch your face, nose, or mouth. 
  • Wear glasses. If you wear contacts, it may be beneficial to switch to glasses for a while. Glasses may provide more protection from respiratory droplets than contacts. Although better, glasses do not offer 100 percent protection. Droplets can still reach your eyes through the sides, top, and bottom of your glasses.
  • Follow good contact lens hygiene. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before putting in or taking out your contact lenses. 
  • Stock up on eye medications. If you do not want to leave your home, your ophthalmologist will allow you to stock up on prescription eye medications for up to 3 months. 
  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water a few times each day or whenever you return home. 
  • Wear face masks in public places. Most states now require citizens to wear face masks in all indoor public areas. Failure to follow this rule can result in a fine. Safety goggles and face shields are only required for health care workers. 
  • Practice social distancing. Stand at least 6 feet away from people in public places. 
Author: Alyssa Hill | UPDATED August 6, 2020
Medical reviewer: MELODY HUANG, O.D. | REVIEWED ON August 4, 2020
Resources

Coronavirus and Your Eyes. American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). 2020, https://www.med.umich.edu/kec/pdf/coronavirus-and-your-eyes-aao.pdf

COVID-19: Low Risk of Coronavirus Spreading through Tears. 25 Mar. 2020, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200325143826.htm.

Dockery, Dominique M., et al. “The Ocular Manifestations and Transmission of COVID-19: Recommendations for Prevention.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 2020, doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2020.04.060.

Emparan, J. et al. “COVID-19 and the eye: how much do we really know? A best evidence review.” Arq. Bras. Oftalmol. vol.83 no.3 São Paulo May/June 2020  Epub May 29, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5935/0004-2749.20200067

How Coronavirus Spreads. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 16 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html.

Hu, Katherine. “Ophthalmic Manifestations Of Coronavirus (COVID-19).” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 17 June 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556093/.Sun, Chuan-Bin, et al. “Role of the Eye in Transmitting Human Coronavirus: What We Know and What We Do Not Know.” Frontiers in Public Health, Frontiers Media S.A., 24 Apr. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7193031/.

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