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Coronavirus: How eyes may play a role in its spread

Coronavirus: How eyes may play a role in its spread

By John Egan, reviewed by Valerie Kattouf, OD, FAAO

Our eyes might play an important role in the spread and prevention of the new coronavirus outbreak seen throughout the world.For example, a Peking University physician believes he may have contracted the coronavirus while not wearing eye protection when treating patients. Medical officials, though, say while this is possible, it may be unlikely.To cut your personal risk of contracting the new coronavirus, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. It is the mucous membranes (membranes that line various cavities in the body) that are most susceptible to transmission of the virus.

What is coronavirus? Reports of a new coronavirus (also referred to as COVID-19) first emerged in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China.Coronaviruses are a group of common viruses. Some affect only animals (such as bats, cats, camels and cattle), while others also affect people, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.COVID-19 can trigger ailments as minor as the common cold, or more consequential such as bronchitis, pneumonia and kidney failure. The most severe cases may be life-threatening. This is the seventh known type of coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How is the new coronavirus related to your eyes? Patients who have contracted the new coronavirus may have ocular symptoms.Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane covering the eyeball. It is often referred to as “pink eye.” Conjunctivitis often presents as an infected/red, “wet and weepy” eye.Viral conjunctivitis is known to present with upper respiratory infections (colds, flus, etc.) and may be a symptom of the COVID-19 virus. A recent study of hospitals across China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine , found “conjunctival congestion” or red, infected eyes in 9 of 1,099 patients (0.8%) with a confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus.A study in The Journal of Medical Virology of 30 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 had only one patient diagnosed with conjunctivitis. Based on this information, the occurrence of conjunctivitis is low.

IF YOU'RE NOT FEELING WELL... Call your family doctor. If you suspect you may have conjunctivitis, call an eye doctor near you. It is suggested that patients do not present to medical or eye care facilities without a prior phone call to help to decrease the possible spread of the virus. A phone call allows the health facility to prepare for your visit and diagnose and treat you in a proper manner.

The relationship between the transmission of the coronavirus and your eyes is complicated.It’s thought that COVID-19 spreads from person to person mainly through airborne “respiratory droplets” produced when someone coughs or sneezes, much like the flu virus spreads, the CDC says. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, and possibly be inhaled into the lungs.Medical experts are unsure whether someone can contract this virus by touching a surface or object, such as a table or doorknob, that has COVID -19 on it and then touching their mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.

Peking University respiratory specialist Wang Guangfa believes he contracted COVID-19 when he came into contact with patients at health clinics in China.Wang reported that his left eye became inflamed afterward, followed by a fever and a buildup of mucus in his nose and throat. He subsequently was diagnosed with the new coronavirus.According to the South China Morning Post , Wang thinks the virus entered his left eye because he wasn’t wearing protective eyewear.Dr. Jan Evans Patterson , professor of medicine and pathology in the Long School of Medicine’s infectious diseases division at UT Health San Antonio, confirms that a scenario like Wang’s could potentially happen.In Wang’s situation, she says, respiratory droplets from an infected person might have reached his eyes or other mucous membranes.Generally, though, transmission of COVID-19 comes with so many unknowns that it’s “plausible but unlikely” to contract it through hand-to-eye contact, says Dr. Stephen Thomas , chief of infectious diseases at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.

How contagious is the new coronavirus? Currently, it’s not known how “easily or sustainably” the virus spreads from person to person, according to the CDC.Many large gatherings and events have been canceled or postponed as a public health measure to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. U.S. health officials have implemented these emergency measures as a best practice to contain the transmission of the virus.Schools have canceled classes and switched to online courses, and sports leagues and museums have closed as a precaution to avoid community spread.

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus? Symptoms of COVID-19 include a mild to severe respiratory illness accompanied by a fever, cough and breathing problems, according to the World Health Organization . Other symptoms include runny nose, sore throat and headache.Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those who are older or have other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.Symptoms normally show up two to 14 days after someone has been exposed to the virus.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed? Health care professionals diagnose the coronavirus through lab tests of respiratory or blood samples or other bodily fluids.

Is there a vaccine or treatment for the new coronavirus? So far, no vaccine or antiviral treatment has been identified. Therefore, the best method for limiting the spread of this virus is to quickly isolate people who have it (or are presumed to have it if they've been exposed to it) before they infect others, the Harvard Business Review says.

How can you cut your risk of contracting coronavirus? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established a site with the most up-to-date information related to the coronavirus outbreak .The CDC's recommended steps to prevent illness include:

Clean your hands often Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, eaten, used the restroom, blown your nose, coughed or sneezed.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, but especially with unwashed hands.Reduce your exposure Avoid close contact with people who are sick.Stay home if you’re sick — except to get medical care.Cover coughs and sneezes Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.

Throw used tissues in the trash.Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose if you are sick.

If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a face mask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a face mask). Face masks may be in short supply and they should be saved for health care workers, people who are sick and caregivers.

Clean and disinfect surfaces Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, the CDC reports. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.At least some coronavirus can potentially remain viable — capable of infecting a person — for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, The Washington Post reports, citing research by a laboratory that is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

How to dress to limit exposure According to the World Health Organization, if you have the potential of being exposed to a person with coronavirus, you should be equipped with protective eyewear, a surgical mask, medical gown, medical gloves and a disposable respirator.Page updated March 2020

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