The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us to avoid touching our eyes, nose, mouth, or anywhere on the face with unwashed hands. This should help prevent us from contracting Coronavirus 19 (COVID-19).
How are our eyes involved with the transmission of COVID-19?
The primary way COVID-19 appears to be transmitted between people is via the water droplets propelled into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. A secondary method of transmission happens when the droplets hit a surface, and an uninfected person touches the surface and then touches their eyes or face.
Viruses enter the body through mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. Once the virus has entered the body, it invades the infected person’s cells and begins to replicate. The person can be contagious for days before having any symptoms.
How the Body Fights Viruses
The body responds over time. First, it identifies the virus. Then, the body creates specific antibodies to resist the replication of the virus and destroy it. For most people, the body identifies the virus and attacks it before getting seriously ill. These people recover and can go back to their regular activities. About 25% have no symptoms, which makes this virus even more dangerous for others. Asymptomatic people can be contagious without knowing it.
For some, COVID-19 is severe, and a small percentage will die from it. These numbers are of critical concern if a vast number of people are exposed to COVID 19. This virus is called “novel” because it is new to the body, so there is no existing antibody memory to identify it quickly. The body needs more time to produce the right antibodies.
Pink Eye and COVID-19
According to a March 31 2020 study in JAMA Ophthalmology, a third of COVID-19 patients also suffered “pink eye” (viral conjunctivitis).1 The symptoms included redness, swelling, increased tears or other secretions. The study speculated that the virus has infected the eyes of these patients and that their tears will carry the virus. So, if one of these patients touches their eye and then another person or surface, they can unwittingly transmit the virus.
Similar viruses in the coronavirus family, known as CoVs, have caused a number of sight-threatening ocular infections in animals. These include not only conjunctivities, but uveitis, retinitis, and optic neuritis.
Learn to Not Touch Your Face
Once we pay attention to not touching our face it may be surprising to realize what a built-in habit it is. We have an itchy cheek, hair is tickling our face, or we rest our chin on our hands while thinking about work. It is not easy to undo that habit. (Actually, one of the side benefits of wearing glasses and/or a face mask is that it interrupts the automatic hand-to-face gesture).
So, it is most important to avoid touching your eyes or anywhere on your face. If you must touch them, wash your hands for 20 seconds, then wash again after touching your face. Favor wearing glasses over contact lenses during the coronavirus outbreak. Pink eye is irresistibly itchy. If you touch your eyes, wash your hands immediately so you do not accidentally transmit it to others.
If you have pink eye, cough, fever, tiredness, or difficulty breathing, consult a doctor.
Up Next: Can boosting your immunity increase your resistance to viruses?
- Wu P, Duan F, Luo C, Liu Q, Qu X, et al. (2020). Characteristics of Ocular Findings of Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) in Hubei Province, China. JAMA Ophthalmol. Mar 31. ↩