How Does COVID-19 Affect Your Eyes?
The COVID-19 virus has mutated several times and now the Delta variant is the cause of new cases in the United States.
Virus mutation is normal and is part of the normal behavior of viruses. For example, each flu season there is a new flu vaccine to protect against that year’s strain as the previous strain has mutated during the past year.
How COVID-19 Spreads to the Eyes
The mode of COVID-19 transmission is believed to be through aerosolized respiratory droplets from person-to-person contact. A second mode of transmission involves touching surfaces containing the infectious droplets then contaminating your eyes, nose, or mouth before carefully washing your hands. This method of transmission is considered a lower risk than the person-to-person aerosol droplet transmission.
COVID-19 transmission occurs primarily through breathing in infected respiratory aerosols—those tiny particles that escape into the air when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. There is a risk of transmission when touching your eyes when having infected aerosolized particles on your hands. For instance, contact lens wearers touch or rub their eyes more often than non-contact lens wearers and, therefore, may be at greater risk of transmission of the virus to and through the eyes. It might be safer for them to temporarily switch to glasses. Glasses can also serve as a shield from aerosols.
Pink Eye – Early Sign of COVID-19?
Pink eye or conjunctivitis has been reported as a possible sign of infection from the previous strains of COVID-19. Some studies reported up to one-third of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had ocular abnormalities, but more studies are needed to get a clear understanding of how common eye symptoms, such as uveitis, lacrimal gland inflammation, and conjunctivitis, are connected to a COVID-19 infection.
Long-COVID and Corneal Damage
The cornea is the clear front surface of the eye, directly in front of the iris and the pupil. Corneal nerve damage has been reported in people with “long COVID” which is debilitating COVID symptoms that persist for more than four weeks after recovery from the acute phase of the infection. The study used a noninvasive test to diagnose corneal nerve fiber damage. More research is needed, but this connection could uncover clues to speed up recovery from long-COVID.
Eye Nodules in the Macula
A study done in France and published in February 2021 found that a few of the patients with severe COVID-19 had nodules in the macula—the part of the retina at the back of the eye that is responsible for central vision. It wasn’t clear whether the abnormal nodules in the macula of those patients were a result of COVID-19 or its treatment.
Recognizing Complications of COVID-19
As more research is done and the findings reviewed, the way in which the virus affects different organs, including the eyes, can be better understood and ways to improve outcomes can be developed.
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Gregory Scimeca, M.D.
Ophthalmologist and Medical Director
The Eye Professionals