COVID-19 and your eyes: What you should know

OUR eyes are one of nature’s complex wonders, no wonder they are regarded as the lamp of the body and window to the soul.

While we are all sheltering in our homes amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we are being bombarded with different arguments, opinions, the media and statistics that make it difficult to choose between what is true and what is not. From already circulating statistics, we are privileged to know that Dr Li Wenliang an Ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital (the epicentre of COVID-19) was in fact a whistleblower of this now unfortunate pandemic in December 2019. He amongst many are now part of these statistics after he died from contracting the virus from an asymptomatic glaucoma patient in January 2020. This report points to the fact that asymptomatic (when a patient is a carrier for a disease or infection but experiences no symptoms) transmission is a significant source of spread.

While several concerns have been raised regarding the role of the eyes in the transmission of this novel virus, recent reports suggest that COVID-19 may cause conjunctivitis with a prevalence of 0.8-4.8% as secondary complications even though it is currently not listed in the national case definition for COVID-19. It is therefore important to note that conjunctivitis (an inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane otherwise known as the conjunctiva that lines your eyelid and covers the white part of your eyeball. This is what causes the whites of your eyes to appear reddish) is a common eye condition and is in fact possible though not proven that a patient with COVID-19 associated conjunctivitis could have the infectious virus in their ocular secretions like tears.

In view of the above, it’s not out of the norm that most of us rub our eyes several times a day whether we are tired, our eyes feel itchy or there seems to be something inside our eyes and often times it appears as though the easiest way to feel relieved is to rub them a little while forgetting that it is a great way to spread the virus from our hands to our eyes. This is why we are all saddled with the responsibility now more than ever to practice actions to prevent the spread of the virus and protect our eyes in addition to our nose and mouth. This entails frequent washing of our hands with soap and running water, avoid sharing cosmetics and any other object involving the eye.

In addition, this is the time to think less of vanity. Contact lens wearers are encouraged to consider wearing their eyeglasses for now so as to reduce the number of times that they touch their eyes towards preventing infection from the virus to themselves and to others.

Nevertheless, though fever, dry cough, tiredness and breathing difficulties still seem to be the most common symptoms of COVID-19, they do not rule in or rule out its existence and this is why no conclusion should be made that any eye problem one might experience during this time is a sign or symptom of COVID-19 because they could be triggered by other eye problems, allergies, infections and adverse effects of some medications.



    Owing to the fact that most eye clinics and healthcare centers are temporarily closed down due to evident reasons, this is the period where digital health technology should be embraced especially for remote consultations, appointment bookings and generally to stay connected to those that need non-emergency eye health services.

    In conclusion, the continuous support of the government in these times and beyond cannot be overemphasized especially in providing basic amenities such as food, constant light and water, security, telecommunications network but to mention a few so as to enable lockdown situations thrive effectively while not forgetting timely remuneration for the government employed workforce and a better enabling environment for those in the private health sector and all healthcare workers at large.

    I implore Optometrists, Ophthalmologists and other healthcare workers to continue to err on the side of caution and continue to prevent the possible transmission of COVID-19 through the ocular tissue.

     Princess Ifeoma Ike, Public Health Optometrist writes from  Abuja

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