Table of Contents
COVID-19 is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, which is spread through respiratory droplets that are ejected from the body through the nose and mouth. (Learn More) These droplets can come into contact with the eyes, causing a viral infection that looks like conjunctivitis. Touching the secretions from a patient’s eyes can transmit the virus, thereby spreading the infection. (Learn More)
People are advised to avoid touching their faces. It’s also recommended to wash and sanitize the hands often, to slow down the spread of COVID-19. (Learn More)
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.
The disease that SARS-CoV-2 causes is COVID-19. As a respiratory virus, it is transmitted through respiratory droplets, primarily through person-to-person contact. If someone near you sneezes or coughs without covering their nose or mouth, you could potentially be sprayed with their respiratory droplets.
Sometimes, this might not have any effect at all. Sometimes, those droplets could be carrying one of the many viruses that cause the common cold. It is possible that the droplets could be carrying SARS-CoV-2.
Sneezing and coughing aren’t the only ways the virus is transmitted. A sick person could touch their mouth or nose and then shake your hand or touch a doorknob or a handrail. When you come into contact with a surface or body part that has been exposed to the virus, and you then touch your own nose or mouth (or potentially your eyes, like when putting a contact lens in), some of the virus is transferred into your body.
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 Contagious Is Coronavirus?
COVID-19 has some similarities with the seasonal flu, and this was the reason early reports of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread were downplayed. But as more has been understood about coronavirus, it has become much clearer that it is a particularly contagious virus.
It is so contagious that epidemiologists have predicted that between 20 and 60 percent of adults in the world may end up being infected by the virus. While the flu takes only two days for the infection to develop symptoms, COVID-19 can be hidden in a patient for as long as 14 days before they start to show symptoms. This means that more and more people can spread the virus without any symptoms.
Additionally, around 1 in 1,000 people who gets sick from the flu succumbs to the disease (a death rate of 0.1 percent in the United States). COVID-19, on the other hand, is projected to kill 10 people per 1,000, making it 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu.
Again unlike the flu, COVID-19 does not yet have any vaccine. While younger people in good health can recover from the disease (assuming they get adequate medical attention), vulnerable people (the elderly, those with immune system problems, or people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions) are at significant risk for getting very sick from COVID-19 and perhaps dying.
Can the Virus Spread Through the Eyes?
Are the eyes a significant location for COVID-19 transmission? The Glaucoma Research Foundation warns that SARS-CoV-2 can be spread through the eyes.
Researchers note that other viruses, like conjunctivitis, can also be transmitted through droplets in the air that make contact with the eyes, so there is a risk (not fully established) that unprotected eyes can be a point of exposure for COVID-19 development.
Health officials estimate that in 1 to 3 percent of patients with COVID-19, viral conjunctivitis can also develop. The virus can spread by coming into contact with the infected tears of a patient and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.
To understand how SARS-CoV-2 can spread through the eyes and why regular handwashing is so important to prevent the spread of the virus, it’s important to understand what a virus is and how it spreads. The New York Times explains that a virus is a microorganism that enters a host’s body, attaches itself to a cell in that body, replicates itself, and then moves on to the next host.
Viruses can’t move without attaching themselves to droplets of mucus or saliva. When we breathe, talk, sing, cough, sneeze, or laugh, we eject these droplets out of our mouths and noses. They can be suspended in the air for about half an hour and eventually be inhaled by another person or even enter the body through their eyes. Some droplets can also land on surfaces like kitchen counters or doorknobs, which are then touched by another person, who then touches their face. This renders even face-to-face conversations a potential point of exposure.
This is why the American Medical Association advises health workers to “[wear] eye protection such as goggles or a face shield” when coming into contact with patients who are showing COVID-19 symptoms.
How Can I Avoid Touching My Face?
How is it possible to avoid or minimize touching your eyes and your face? BBC writes that humans are one of the few species in the animal kingdom that regularly touch their face, oftentimes without even noticing.
Unfortunately, we tend to touch our mouths, noses, and eyes a lot, usually as a form of unconscious (or even conscious) nonverbal communication, sometimes as an instinctive way of grooming ourselves or for any number of other purposes. So-called self-touching plays a vital role in all emotional and cognitive processes, occurring in every human being.
A virologist at the University of Leeds told the BBC that one way to remind people to limit contact with their eyes, nose, and mouth is to wear a mask. The physical sensation of the mask on the face will help remind people to keep their fingers away, and the mask itself can reduce the risk of breathing in air droplets with SARS-CoV-2. Even wearing eyeglasses or sunglasses is a way of protecting the eyes from being exposed to contaminated droplets and serves as a reminder for people to not touch their eyes.
Others have suggested more behavioral changes, like leaving sticky notes in visible places or being mindful of the impulse to touch your face and holding the moment until that impulse goes again. Some people might benefit from fidget spinners or stress balls to control their self-touching, although these items will have to be disinfected and cleaned before and after every use.
It’s universally accepted that even the most vigilant of people, taking every conceivable precaution, will still touch their face at some point without realizing it (even while speaking of the importance of not touching their face).
Because of this, the World Health Organization suggests that people frequently wash their hands with soap and hot water for 20 seconds at a time, maintain a six-foot distance from other people, avoid large crowds, and limit physical contact with other people. This combination, as well as some of the other methods mentioned above, offers the best chance for controlling the instinctive habit of touching your eyes, mouth, and nose. This best reduces the risk of being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and developing COVID-19.
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.