Jul 16, 2020 2:15 PM

Can you contract coronavirus through your eyes, and might safety glasses reduce the risk of exposure?

The questions made headlines recently when virologist and epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Fair said he believed he was exposed through his eyes while on a crowded flight. Fair contracted COVID-19, even though he wore a mask and gloves and wiped down his seat. His symptoms started about four days after the trip.

On the NBC Today show, Fair spoke from his hospital bed. “You can still get this virus through your eyes, and epidemiologically, it’s the best guess I have of probably how I got it.”

Was this a fluke? Or could the fact that he was on a crowded flight make him more vulnerable?

What are the risks of coronavirus transmission through the eyes?

William Barlow Jr., MD, of the John A. Moran Eye Center, agrees the risk is real. “The mucous membrane of the eye (conjunctiva) is similar to the membrane that lines the inside of the nose and mouth. There is a risk of contracting COVID-19 via the mucous membrane of the eye if it is exposed to a viral load, which would be most likely via respiratory droplets or through contamination of the hands followed by touching the face or eyes.”

Still, the risk appears to vary depending on the situation.

While the eyes are vulnerable, they are not thought to be the primary mode of transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The pathway from the eyes into the respiratory system is far less direct than via the nose and mouth, according to experts. To infect you by way of your eyes, the virus would have to penetrate the mucous membrane, be washed by tears into your nasal cavity, and then flow from the nose into your throat. In addition, blinking and tears are two defense, keeping our eyes safe from invaders on a daily basis.

How to prevent catching COVID-19 through the eyes

The basic precautions prevail:

When to consider wearing safety glasses to prevent coronavirus exposure

According to Barlow and other experts, if you work in an office where you don’t have to be close to others, you should be fine without eye protection.

But in the following high-risk situations, he and the experts recommend protection via goggles, protective glasses, or a face shield (with a mask) to reduce the chances of those droplets reaching the eye:

  • Working in a hospital or health care setting.
  • Sitting in a tightly packed airplane or other enclosed space where you’re unable to avoid someone talking to you, or coughing or sneezing near you.
  • If you’re in a position where there’s a possibility of someone yelling in your face.

“Scientists are still learning about the coronavirus, but when it comes to the spread of disease, vigilant hygiene and protecting our eyes, nose, and mouth just makes good sense,” says Barlow.

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