While we've been warned for months not to touch our faces during the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk of contracting the virus through the eyes, specifically, was suddenly thrust into the public consciousness in late July, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News that goggles or a face shield could be helpful in reducing the spread. "Theoretically, you should protect all the mucosal surfaces. So if you have goggles or an eye shield you should use it," Dr. Fauci said. He added that a shield or goggles are not universally recommended at this time — but if you want to wear them for more complete protection, you can.
Just how much risk is there of contracting COVID-19 through your eyes? "Essentially, the chance of ophthalmological transmission is slim but possible," Arthur Astorino, MD, a board-certified ophthalmologist at Astorino and Associates Eye Center in Newport Beach, CA, told POPSUGAR. Here's what you need to know.
How Could COVID-19 Get Into Your Eyes?
"When addressing the concern of, 'Can I catch COVID-19 from someone else by getting something in my eye?' we have to consider the way the virus can enter the body," Dr. Astorino said. "A recent study has shown that we have ACE2 receptors [which can receive the SARS-CoV-2 virus] on the tissue of the eye; so in theory, if someone coughs or sneezes or gets air particles into your eye, it's possible to transmit COVID-19 that way." However, he added that he doesn't know of any documented transmissions via the eye.
"Ocular transmission is possible, but nobody knows to what extent the eye is a conduit, and the jury is out on how common it is," explained Sandra Kesh, MD, deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY. "It's likely not a major route of infection." Dr. Kesh added that she believes "you would have to have close contact with someone sneezing, coughing, or spitting when they talk to contract the virus through your eye."
Should You Wear Eye Protection to Help Prevent COVID-19?
Because Dr. Fauci suggested eye protection, we conferred with our experts to get their takes, too. "If you want to be cautious, you can. If it makes you feel better to wear a face shield, go for it. But if you're just going to a grocery store, you're not really going to need eye protection," Dr. Astorino said. "If you're an eye doctor, inches from a patient's face, or dealing with COVID-positive patients, that's when you'll want a shield."
Dr. Kesh agreed. "This is an area where personal choice and relative risk matter," she told POPSUGAR. "With a virus like this, it's next to impossible to fully protect yourself at all times, so we start to think about relative risk more carefully. The relative risk of getting exposed through your nose and mouth is far greater than through the eyes, based on what we've seen so far."
That doesn't mean your eyes carry no risk, "but the probability of you inhaling a droplet is far greater," she continued. "Masks are a tried and true way to prevent infection. Adding eye protection is another layer, but I think far less important than regularly wearing a facial covering of high-quality material. With that and social distancing, we've seen that we can stop spread."
That said, you might consider wearing glasses instead of contact lenses, if for no other reason than to keep your fingers out of your eyes. "Your fingers are in your eyes more when you wear contact lenses," Dr. Astorino said. He suggests maybe laying off the contacts if you're out and about, and being super diligent about hand washing.
Sunglasses are also "a good idea no matter what," Dr. Astorino said, because they protect your eyes from harmful UV rays, among other things. So, don't forget your shades while you're enjoying some socially distanced sunshine this year. That said, "sunglasses won't be the most important thing to reduce transmission of the virus," Dr. Kesh said. "I would invest more in masks, social distancing, and vigilant hand hygiene."