As pandemic restrictions start to lift, many people have eye issues that need to be addressed.

Many people spend extra hours of their day in Zoom meetings and bingeing TV shows during lockdowns, so optometrists are using the wave of reopening's to encourage children and adults to get their eyes checked.  Many vision problems start without symptoms, so doctors warn that a number of conditions could have developed during the lockdown.

Digital Eye Strain & the Pandemic

In the early days of the pandemic and throughout most of 2020, millions of people heeded the call to stay indoors and spent hours on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. Additionally, many more people read books on their e-readers, played games on their consoles and phones, attended work meetings and church services over Zoom, and otherwise spent more time looking at their screens than they normally would.

While these stay-at-home measures almost certainly “flattened the curve” of coronavirus infections, doctors worry that in terms of eye health, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. In the first ten months of the pandemic, children were spending 50 percent more of their time on their mobile devices than they were before. In August 2020, 899 parents reported that 70 percent of their children were spending “at least four hours a day on electronic devices.”

Children & Eye Health

Given that rates of shortsightedness had already been increasing before the pandemic, this has led many optometrists to worry about an epidemic of dry eye syndrome and digital eye strain.

This is compounded by the fact that during the pandemic, schools and optometry clinics were unable to give children their necessary vision screenings. Without those screenings, vision problems can develop undetected and untreated, leading to worsening academic performances, which disproportionately affects children from low-income and ethnic minority families.

Now that many optometrists have reopened their offices for in-person screenings, the call is going out for parents to resume getting regular eye exams for their children. Eye exams are also needed for the parents themselves, many of whom have also been watching Netflix and spending hours in Zoom meetings.

With guidelines about wearing facemasks, socially distancing, washing hands, and regularly performing deep cleanings on all surfaces and equipment, it is safer than it has been in a year to go back to an optometrist’s office. With online work and entertainment likely continuing to be a part of the future even beyond the pandemic, the need to have healthy eyes is more important than it has ever been.

Asymptomatic Vision Conditions

It was difficult to think about getting an eye exam during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but unfortunately, the longer a person goes without an eye exam, the more vision-related conditions can develop. These conditions can be quite slow and unnoticeable at first, such that a person does not know that anything is wrong. If they continue to look at their computer screens and mobile phones for hours at a time, especially in low-light conditions, it can create a perfect storm for progressive vision loss and other eye problems.

Here are examples of eye issues people might be seeing now since many avoided routine eye exams during the pandemic:

  • Glaucoma: This is the leading cause of blindness if left untreated. It is especially insidious because some forms of glaucoma are painless until the condition finally damages the optic nerve to the point of irreversible vision loss. Other forms of glaucoma, like narrow-angle glaucoma, are much more noticeable before they do permanent damage. An ophthalmologist can diagnose glaucoma by analyzing the optic nerve through pachymetry and tonometry tests. Glaucoma responds well to medication, and surgery can ease the intraocular pressure that threatens the optic nerve, but neither option is likely without regular doctor visits.
  • Retinal detachment: This is another condition that is initially painless. Even the symptoms of the condition — blurred vision, flashes of light, and floaters — are usually attributed to something else. Now that doctors are seeing patients in person again, people who have risk factors for retinal detachment (over 50 years old, family history of the condition, past history of eye injuries, or severe shortsightedness) should schedule an appointment to be examined for it.
  • Hypertensive retinopathy: This is a condition that arises from unchecked diabetes, where uncontrolled high blood pressure damages the retina’s blood vessels. Like most of the conditions on this list, hypertensive retinopathy doesn’t tend to have symptoms until the disease is in a very advanced stage, at which point the blood vessels burst, causing swollen eyes and vision problems. People with diabetes, or risk factors for diabetes, should schedule an optometry appointment as quickly as possible to check for the likelihood of developing hypertensive retinopathy.
  • Age-related macular degeneration: This condition comes in two forms: dry and wet. Dry macular degeneration, the more common of the two, has no symptoms in the early stages, but it can still go on to diminish central vision and make it harder to see in low-light conditions. The other, wet macular degeneration, is quite similar but has a faster onset.

With any of these conditions, there are many treatment options to potentially slow the development of vision loss and how disruptive that can be to daily life. However, none of those options will materialize without regular eye exams.

Eye Health & COVID

What should you know about protecting your eyes from COVID-19 even at this point in the pandemic? One piece of information is to avoid touching your eyes or the area around your eyes unless you have cleaned and sanitized your hands.

A researcher and professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore said that the novel coronavirus has been detected in tears from COVID-19 patients, which raises concerns that the virus could be transmitted through the eyes.

If a person who is positive for COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or even talks, the virus moves from tiny droplets from their mouth or nose to another person’s face. While the droplets would likely be inhaled through the nose or mouth of the other person, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City points out that they can “also enter the body through the eyes.” If an uninfected person touches a handle, doorknob, or mobile device that has droplets with the SARS-CoV-2 virus on it and then touches their eyes, they can become infected, even if they wore a mask and did not inhale the virus through their nose or mouth.

Coronavirus & Conjunctivitis

In that way, the novel coronavirus is similar to the influenza virus, which can cause respiratory symptoms and ocular symptoms, like conjunctivitis. For this reason, conjunctivitis is considered a “possible primary symptom of COVID-19.”

This is largely due to the nasolacrimal system, the network that connects the eyes, nose, and throat. It carries tears from the surface of the eyes to the nasal cavity and then down the back of the throat. This is why our nose runs when we cry. It is also why people can taste medicine in the back of their throat when they apply eye drops or other medication that touches the eyes.

In general, most doctors and researchers believe that there’s a much greater chance of becoming infected with COVID-19 through the mouth and nose than there is through the eyes. The mouth and the nose provide direct access to the lungs, which is where the novel coronavirus will do most of its damage. While it can be quite damaging to the eyes, the coronavirus has to do a lot more work to get to the lungs through that method of entry.

Post-COVID Eye Appointments

With vaccines widely available, and doctors’ offices taking every precaution to make their facilities safer, it is an ideal time to catch up on your post-COVID eye care. Start with an exam at your eye doctor.

References

Can You Catch COVID-19 Through Your Eyes? (May 2020). WebMD.

Can You Catch the Coronavirus Through Your Eyes? (June 2020). AARP.

The Eyes Have It: Influenza Virus Infection Beyond the Respiratory Tract. (July 2018). Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Researchers Identify Pink Eye as Possible Primary Symptom Of COVID-19. (June 2020). Ophthalmology Times.

Kids’ Screen Time Up 50 Percent During Pandemic. (January 2021). Axios.

YouTube, Netflix and Gaming: A Look at What Kids Are Doing With Their Increased Screen Time. (August 2020). Morning Consult.

Myopia: A Close Look at Efforts to Turn Back a Growing Problem. (October 2017). National Eye Institute.

Health Barriers to Learning: The Prevalence and Educational Consequences in Disadvantaged Children. (January 2017). Children’s Health Fund.

Millions of Low-Income Kids Are Missing Their Checkups. (November 2014). The Atlantic.

We Are Not Meant to Sit in Zoom Meetings for Hours at a Time. (September 2020). Inc.

Some School Districts Will Continue to Offer Remote Learning Even After Covid-19 — Here is Why. (April 2021). KHOU-11.

Glaucoma: The ‘Black Hole’ of Irreversible Blindness. (January 2016). Medical Journal, Armed Forces of India.

Risk Factors for Retinal Detachment. (June 2020). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

High Blood Pressure and Eye Disease. (June 2020). WebMD.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration. (August 2020). National Eye Institute.

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