As America begins to re-open and people head back out where others are gathering, a new study by Chinese researchers suggests you may want to pay attention to how exposed your eyes are to the coronavirus. New evidence they found demonstrates how COVID-19 could enter your body through the eyes, in addition to other entry points that have received a lot more attention.
"It's a real risk," said Dr. Sonal Tuli, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "It's not something that we need to panic about. But we do need to be careful."
Tuli says the Academy and its members have, on their own, identified cases of American patients exhibiting clues that their infections could have begun in their eyes.
In the new study published in the respected medical journals JAMA and The Lancet, Chinese researchers demonstrated how the coronavirus can indeed infect and then replicate inside human eye cells. The researchers say that a repeat of their study with a larger sample size could lead to a better understanding of how the virus spreads. The new report studied the behavior of the novel coronavirus specifically.
But in 2017, the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more broadly that “... Most influenza viruses may be capable of establishing infection if they reach the surface of ocular cells.” If the virus reaches your eyes, it is an easy path from there for it to travel to your lungs and other organs.
"You think about the entire mucous membrane of the nose, mouth and eyes. They're all connected," said Tuli. "If something got into your eyes it could get into the rest of your respiratory system."
The Chinese researchers wrote their findings are “…crucially relevant for infection prevention and control.” There is a growing need for that as more scenes emerge where people eager to get out of their home are now packing into tight quarters, sometimes with few people wearing a face mask.
To protect yourself, the American Academy of Opthalmology suggests now you put on a pair of glasses or sunglasses when you go out, in addition to your face mask. The idea: the glasses may help block at least some infected droplets in the air from getting to your eyes. Additionally, if you touch an infected surface with your hands, you might be less likely to touch your own eyes next if you are wearing glasses of some kind.
"I think that is probably the most important reason to wear glasses," said Tuli. "You would have a little bit of a pause because you would hit the glasses and say, 'Oh, I'm not supposed to be touching my eyes.' So absolutely, that would be a great way for people to just give themselves a little bit of a pause to prevent themselves from infecting themselves."