How does coronavirus affect your eye health?

Published: 02/06/2020 | Updated: 12/05/2021
Edited by: LAURA BURGESS

You may wonder how coronavirus might affect the eyes, whether the virus can be transmitted via the eyes, the possible symptoms that could manifest and whether it is okay to have a routine examination during the pandemic. Thankfully, one of our leading London ophthalmologists Dr Nick Koutroumanos answers these questions and more on coronavirus and eye health.

A woman wearing a covid-19 face masks looks up to the camera.

 

Is it true that pink eye is an early sign of having contracted coronavirus?

Upper respiratory tract infections, like those caused by the coronavirus family, can present in an individual with a pink eye (conjunctivitis) as their first sign.

Though it was originally considered unlikely for individuals having contracted COVID-19 to either present with a pink eye or to only suffer from a pink eye throughout their disease, there have now been several scientific reports around the world describing both of these two scenarios.

It is, however, felt that like with most other forms of viral conjunctivitis, a COVID-related pink eye will typically only cause grittiness and discomfort, eye-watering and occasional discharge for a few days and is very much not expected to affect a person’s eyesight.

 

Can you contract COVID-19 through the eyes?

Much like our gums and nasal lining, the lining of the eye (conjunctiva) is designed in a way that makes it much more permeable than our skin is to micro-organisms. And in the same way that viruses, such as these from the rhinovirus or coronavirus family, readily penetrate our defences through the nose or mouth, the same goes for the COVID-19 virus.

It is, therefore, felt that the eyes are an important point of entry of this particular coronavirus and this is why protection with goggles or visors is indicated when looking after individuals with this disease.

During the pandemic, though the number of all the other types conjunctivitis is not expected to significantly change (other than the seasonal dip in the incidence of pink eyes seen during summertime), extra care should be taken in all cases of pink eye as they can potentially represent a COVID-19 infection.

 

Is it ok to have a routine eye exam during the pandemic?

Hospitals across the country are quickly adapting their admissions criteria along with government regulations in an effort to reduce the risk of patients attending eye exams.

Eventually, the admissions of COVID-19 patients will be centralised in fewer specified NHS hospitals, allowing most other centres to resume safer routine clinical practice.

Patients should ideally have a conversation with their eye healthcare practitioner so they can together balance the need for attending an eye exam with their individual risk of contracting the infection.

 

Are oculoplastic surgeries still going ahead as normal during the pandemic?

Consultations on eyelid matters, which are thought to be time-sensitive, can now increasingly be carried out in person with safety precautions in place at the centre where I am based and others across the country. Those clinical matters not deemed time-sensitive can very readily be dealt with through teleconference, using a wide variety of video-chat platforms.

Eyelid operations, such as the removal of certain eyelid growths, infections or injuries, are going ahead again with certain precautions. At the moment, less time-sensitive eyelid surgery is not being carried out. I anticipate however that within in a few weeks we will again be planning routine eyelid procedures.

One concern shared by most doctors is that this temporary barrier to healthcare may lead to individuals delaying a potentially time-sensitive presentation and as such when in any doubt, it is best that patients discuss their concerns with their GP or eye surgeon.