The coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) primarily spreads through respiratory droplets ejected during talking, coughing and sneezing. These virus-laden droplets can enter your body through the eyes, nose, and mouth, the three main avenues to your respiratory system.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages, most of the measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus focused on minimizing the spread of droplets from infected people. These droplets not only infected surfaces and objects but could also stay suspended in the air for long periods.

New studies show us that in addition to wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, protecting your eyes is one of the best preventative measures against COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.

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How Contagious Is Coronavirus?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus shares similarities with the influenza virus, but it is considered more contagious for a simple reason. Symptoms of the flu usually start to appear after 48 hours, but it can take up to 14 days for symptoms of COVID-19 to manifest. Asymptomatic people are just as contagious as those who display symptoms but far more likely to infect people as sick patients are usually quarantined immediately.

Experts speculate that the coronavirus may infect up to 60% of the global adult population before the pandemic is officially eradicated.

The Delta Variant

In 2021, more than a year after the initial coronavirus was identified in China, a new strain of coronavirus was detected in India. This new strain, called the Delta variant, caused a devastating second wave that overwhelmed the entire country’s healthcare system.

This new variant has since spread to other parts of the world and led to surges in infection rates and death rates, and experts believe this strain is more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.

How Does Coronavirus Spread?

The clinical name of the virus that is spreading across the world is SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). This means it is part of the family of coronaviruses that have caused the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) pandemics.

Coronavirus mainly spreads via person-to-person contact. Earlier on, experts believed that surfaces were a significant cause for concern since the virus remained viable for hours outside the body. However, current research shows that COVID-19 rarely spreads through objects and surfaces and that a bigger concern is the prevalent lack of eye protection, even though there is recent and historical proof that protecting the eyes during a viral pandemic reduces infection rates.

NPR further explains that SARS-CoV-2 can also be spread by kissing an infected person or talking with an infected person in close proximity (even if the infected person doesn’t appear to have any symptoms). This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people stand at least six feet apart from each other, to reduce the risk that the droplets from a person with the disease can reach the nose, eyes, or mouth of someone else.

How Coronavirus Infects the Eyes

Sneezing and coughing are the main ways through which coronavirus spreads from person to person. The virus multiplies in the respiratory system and spreads to the outside world when an infected person discharges droplets of respiratory fluids such as saliva and mucus.

Wearing a mask and standing at least six feet apart reduces the spread of these droplets, and so does coughing into your elbow. Frequent hand washing protects us from ourselves because SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted from your hands to your respiratory system when you touch your mouth, nose, and eyes.

Eyes are especially vulnerable to infection because most masks don’t offer any eye protection. Furthermore, most people touch their eyes so subconsciously that it’s impossible to regulate their behavior.

SARS-CoV-2 can infect the conjunctiva and cornea via the angiotensin receptor enzyme-2, which explains why many COVID-19 patients are also diagnosed with conjunctivitis. Once it replicates in the eyes, the virus travels through the nasolacrimal duct to reach the nasopharynx, where it can access the rest of the respiratory system.

Should You Wear Eye Protection?

Studies from more than a century ago, during the viral influenza pandemic, proved that the eyes are an important infection route for viruses like the SARS-CoV-2. Doctors began recommending full facial masks that covered the eyes. These weren’t just to shield people from infected droplets, but they also served as a deterrent to face touching.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of researchers observed that despite wearing full protective gear, including layered masks and shoe covers, 19% of healthcare workers in a community still got infected. However, after the introduction of face shields, the infections dropped to zero.

A more recent observational study reports that wearing spectacles for at least eight hours a day has a protective effect against the coronavirus transmission. The experts running the study hypothesize that glasses act as a physical barrier to virus-containing droplets and also deter eye touching.

Eye protection such as goggles and face shields are just as important as masks and not just for health care workers. Experts are already proposing the use of face shields to curb community transmission because all indicators show that the eyes could be the missing key to stopping the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

How to Protect Your Eyes (and Face) During the Pandemic

Although you can minimize face touches by wearing a mask, it just isn’t feasible to expect people to avoid touching their faces. It is a form of expression that occurs almost subconsciously.

Nevertheless, you can learn how to be conscious about facial touches and use the right approach so as to minimize hand-to-face contact or to eliminate all possible contaminations first.

  • If you must touch your eyes, use a tissue. Make a habit of using a tissue if you must touch your face, even if it is to rub your eye or adjust your glasses.
  • Keep your eyes moisturized. Dry eyes are itchy eyes, so to prevent the urge to rub them every now and then, you can use moisturizing drops.
  • Wear protective eyewear in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces. Your eyes need as much protection from coronavirus as your mouth and nose do. In addition to standing at least six feet apart and wearing a face mask, you should have protective eyewear such as goggles or a face shield on.
  • Always wear a mask outdoors. A mask will stop you or at least make you more conscious of touches to the face. You should wear one whenever you’re outdoors as a reminder. The same applies to protective eyewear, which also serves as a deterrent.
  • Visible reminders. Some suggest leaving notices around public areas to remind people not to touch their faces. You can also leave sticky notes in your workspace if you find visible reminders more memorable.
  • Distractions. For some, self-touching is impulsive and uncontrollable, which means that a slight behavioral change may be necessary. Distractions and toys like fidget spinners and stress balls can ease the urge to touch the face and eyes.
  • Wash your hands before touching your face. If you must touch your face for any reason, even if it’s to administer eye drops, you must first wash your hands with clean, running water and soap for at least 20 seconds.

References

How Does the New Coronavirus Spread? These New Studies Offer Clues. (March 2020). Vox.

How the Novel Coronavirus and the Flu Are Alike ... And Different. (March 2020). NPR.

Coronavirus “Could Infect 60% of Global Population if Unchecked.” (February 2020). The Guardian.

Why COVID-19 Is Worse Than the Flu, in One Chart. (March 2020). Vox.

Coronavirus Symptoms: What Are They and Should I Call the Doctor? (March 2020). The Guardian.

Coronavirus Eye Safety. (March 2020). Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Surfaces? Sneezes? Sex? How the Coronavirus Can and Cannot Spread. (March 2020). The New York Times.

A Mount Vernon Choir Went Ahead With Rehearsal. Now Dozens Have Coronavirus and 2 Are Dead. (March 2020). Seattle Times.

Tracking the Wuhan Coronavirus: 5 Things Doctors Must Know. (January 2020). American Medical Association.

How to Avoid Touching Your Face So Much. (March 2020). BBC.

Would Everyone Wearing Face Masks Help Us Slow the Pandemic? (March 2020). Science.

“Don’t Touch Your Face,” Warn Public Officials Seconds Before Touching Their Faces. (March 2020). The Washington Post.

Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public. (March 2020). World Health Organization.

Delta variant: 8 things you should know about this COVID-19 strain. (July 23, 2021). UCDavis Health.

Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 and Surface (Fomite) Transmission for Indoor Community Environments. (April 5, 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SARS-CoV-2: eye protection might be the missing key. (February 23, 2021). The Lancet.

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