Focus on this, contact lens wearers of the world: To reduce the spread of the pandemic virus that causes Covid-19, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is suggesting it’s time to put your contact lenses on the shelf and dazzle the world with your frames.
It’s not because wearing contacts puts you at greater risk for catching the disease, experts say.
The reason the academy suggests the change is because wearing glasses may help you stop touching your face. Touching your face, and especially the nose and mouth, is a key way any virus is spread, including the novel coronavirus.
Why contact lens?
Contact lens users not only touch their eyes to put in and remove their lens twice or more a day, they also touch their eyes and face much more than people who don’t wear contacts, said Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
“You touch your eye and then you touch another part of your body,” said Steinemann, an ophthalmologist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
“You rub your eyes, then rub your face, scratch your face, put your fingers in your mouth, put your fingers in your nose,” he added. “Some people are not very hygienic and may have forgotten to first wash their hands.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a study and found that one-third of contact lens users were non-compliant with proper hygiene practices, such as washing hands, when putting in and taking out their contact lens. The lack of hygiene has contributed to three outbreaks of potentially blinding eye disease in the US, the CDC says.
Other studies have found that an estimated 140 million contact lens wearers worldwide may not be number overtly concerned by their lack of hygiene when it comes to contact lens.
While wearing glasses or other eye protection is critical for any health professional taking care of patients with Covid-19, for the rest of us “it’s just another preventative, another way in which you can add a filter to help yourself stay away from a coronavirus,” Steinemann said.
In case you’re wondering, it’s not likely you can get the novel coronavirus - or any virus – from the eye itself.
“Can you end up with with Covid-19 from the virus entering through the eye? Theoretically, it’s possible, but we have no proof of that,” he added.
“It’s possible, I guess, but I’ve always thought that that was a bit of a stretch,” said infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Pink eye connection
What’s more likely is that this new coronavirus could cause conjunctivitis, a highly contagious condition also known as pink eye. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the thin, transparent layer of tissue, called conjunctiva, that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid.
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“Conjunctiva is modified mucus membrane, like the inside of your mouth or the inside of your nose or nasal cavity and pharynx,” Steinemann said.
“It’s moist and nice and hospitable for viruses, in fact there’s lots of organisms that can stick very readily to your conjunctiva, or for that matter, stick on a contact lens that is also resting on your conjunctiva,” he added.
Symptoms of conjunctivitis include tearing, itching or burning, blurred vision, red or “pink” in the whites of the eye, pus, mucus and a yellow discharge that can crusts over the eyelashes, often sticking the eyes together after sleep.
Reports from China and around the world are showing that about 1% to 3% of people with Covid-19, also had conjunctivitis.
This is concerning because the coronavirus can spread by touching fluid from an infected person’s eyes, or from objects that person has touched which then carry the fluid.
The news caused more than a dozen national eye organizations to tell ophthalmologists to stop seeing patients for anything but urgent or emergency care, such as eye injuries. That includes both office and surgical care.
“Each of us has a societal responsibility to not function as a vector of a potentially fatal disease,” the academy said in its announcement. “This is an existential crisis. We as physicians must respond to it and support our colleagues and our communities. Be safe.”
A newly released study by the American Academy of Ophthalmology found no evidence that people with Covid-19 were shedding the virus from their tears, but no one in the study had conjunctivitis. So it’s still unknown if the novel coronavirus can be spread by tears.
That doesn’t mean that any red or pinkish eye will be a sign of Covid-19, experts stress.
The novel coronavirus, also called SARS-CoV-2, is just one of many viruses that can cause conjunctivitis; in fact, it’s so common that it came as no real surprise to scientists that this newly discovered Covid-19 virus would do the same.
“There’s lots of organisms that can stick very readily to your conjunctiva, or for that matter, stick on a contact lens that is also resting on your conjunctiva,” Steinemann said.
There are numerous viruses and bacteria responsible for the common cold that can cause pink eye, as can fungi, amoebas and parasites picked up from swimming in contaminated waters. Allergic reactions to smoke or dust, shampoos, pool chlorine, even eye drops can be to blame.
Plus there are many other, often benign causes of pink eye: seasonal allergies; a sty, which is a clogged eye duct or a sort of “eye pimple;” a chalazion, which is an inflammation of the gland along the eyelid; blepharitis, another inflammation or infection of the skin along the eyelid; or iritis, an inflammation of the colored part of your eye called the iris.
None of those conditions are contagious.
Still, a pink or red eye could be one more sign that you should call your doctor if you also have other tell-tale symptoms of Covid-19, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
Or it could just be allergies, especially if you’ve been sneezing and your eyes and nose are itchy.
Regardless, this is a time to be conscientious about social distancing at 6 feet and practicing good self-hygiene – washing hands (the right way) at every opportunity and not touching your face. Which leads us back to putting up your contact lens for a while.
“This is not the time to cut corners,” Steinemann said. “Always wash your hands, always use hand sanitizer. Don’t touch your face. Don’t rub your eye. Right? And disinfect your contact lenses.”
If you keep wearing them at all.