Time to ditch the contact lenses? Eyes can be a route for COVID-19 too

As well as masks and gloves, eyes should be just as adequately protected say doctors

While protecting ourselves from COVID-19 with masks and gloves, new studies suggest that we should be covering our eyes as well.

In a study conducted by a team of doctors headed by Dr Elia Duh, at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, US, they examined 10 eyes of deceased patients and five surgical samples of tissue from patients who did not have coronavirus to determine the presence of ACE 2 receptors on the conjunctival surface that coronavirus could latch on to.

Studies are ongoing but the consensus among opthalmologists is that there is a reasonable chance of catching coronavirus through your eyes.Dr Elizabeth Bradley

Dr Elizabeth Bradley, an ophthalmologist from Mayo Clinic, in the US, told Gulf News, “The transparent membrane that lines our eyelid and covers the white part of our eye, is called the conjunctiva and it’s a mucosal lining is very similar to the lining in our nose and mouth. The conjunctival membrane does get infected by other adenoviruses such as common cold and herpes simplex, so it is possible that the SarsCov2 virus also can infect the eyes. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, while the mask is covering the mouth and nose, the virus is likely to be absorbed by the conjunctiva. It is also possible that a part of the viral load from a COVID-19 patient is shed from the eye. Besides that there is a risk of contracting the virus when people who may have come in contact with a contaminated surface and have happened to touch their face or eyes”

Dr Diljeet Kaur Gahir, specialist ophthalmologist at Prime Hospital, Dubai, reported that a lot of patients testing positive for COVID 19, displayed the classic ‘pink eye’.

“These patients with fever and cold also came in with watery eyes with slightly inflamed conjunctiva like we see in a conjunctivitis infection. Our eyes are known to susceptible to viral infection and there have been residues of other viruses found in the tear and mucous lining of the eyes. The excessive tears get in to the throat and get absorbed into the respiratory tract. So there is a high chance of the infection that may be in the eyes getting into the respiratory tract,” she explained.

Dr Gahir said that Dubai Health Authority (DHA) guidelines were being followed to avoid contraction of infection through the eyes.Dr Diljeet Kaur Gahir

“Many ophthalmic surgeries like the dental and ENT surgeries generate some aerosol effect. The aerosol impact happens when high powered tools used in surgery, cause very fine particle to get airborne under pressue and remain suspended in air trapped in moisture droplets as a result of the impact of the tool. As per DHA guidelines to avoid any aerosol contamination, we space out all our consultations with at least a 20-minute gap and in that period thoroughly sanitise and clean the consultation rooms.” she explained.

Avoid use of contact lenses and go for large framed glasses

Dr Bradley added that as per the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, a proper eye protection such as a full face shield was mandatory for all health care staff and was an intrinsic part of the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) used in hospitals.

Both Dr Bradley and Dr Gahir advised certain basic precautions for the members of the community. “Apart from face masks and gloves it is important to wear some eye protection to avoid any contamination through the eyes, when one is at a public place like a grocery or a super market,” said Dr Bradley.

Dr Gahir especially cautioned users of contact lenses. “In these times it is advisable to wear an additional zero power eye glass to shield the eyes. Or else, it is advisable for contact lens users to switch to eye glasses for the time being. These are a more effective barrier for the eyes. Besides with contact lenses the chances of irritation to the conjunctiva is likely and users might feel like adjusting their lens or touching their face or eyes, which makes them susceptible to infection,” she explained.

The jury is out on whether eyes are a conduit for the COVID-19 infection and many air travelers on repatriation flights who took all precautions to wear face mask and gloves and still contracted COVID, have given credence to the theory that eyes are another route for infection. So until conclusively proved or disproved, eye specialists advise people to shield the eyes from possible virus contaimnation.

Dos and Don’ts to avoid infection through the eyes

  • In a public place always practice social distancing keeping a distance of 2 feet with another person at a super market or grocery. Just masks and gloves will not provide enough protection
  • Frequently wash hands and sanitize to avoid infection from the hand to the eye as one is likely to touch one’s face. This can happen even when one is wearing gloves if the surface of the glove that is contaminated brushes against the eye as we reach out to touch our face.
  • Face shields protect well but not everyone can have face shields. So Invest in a large framed pair of cheap glasses (zero number) from a store that can be worn as protection when one steps out to go to a public place. The glasses will provide protection to those wearing contact lenses as well.
  • While doing contact tracing, it would also help to trace to determine who many cases may have contracted the infection through the eyes as it would help researchers get more evidence on this route infection
  • Source : Dr Elizabeth Bradley and Dr Diljit Kaur Gahir