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COVID-19 fact check: Can you catch it through your eyes?

By now, we’re all aware of the importance of wearing a face mask to protect ourselves and those around us from COVID-19. Covering both your mouth and nose is the most effective way to help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.

But what about the eyes — is it also possible to contract COVID-19 through your eyes?

To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not issued any specific recommendations regarding the use of eye protection. However, as the virus continues to spread, eye protection is becoming more common, especially in the healthcare environment. Some infectious disease experts have suggested that wearing goggles or a face shield may provide an added layer of protection against the COVID-19 virus.

So, should you be shielding your eyes every time you step outside your door? Here’s what we know about eye protection and COVID-19 transmission.

Can you get COVID-19 through the eyes?

It all comes down to the mucosal membranes. Mucosal membranes line our nose, mouth and upper airways. They help protect us from exposures to the environment when we eat, drink and breathe.

However, the virus that causes COVID-19 (called SARS-CoV-2) can use the cells of that mucosal lining as an entry point.

Droplets too small to perceive can land on the eyes or eyelids, or be accidentally deposited when you rub your eyes with unclean hands. Tears from our eyes drain into the nasal cavities, which is part of the upper respiratory system. This process can cause deposits of the virus on the eyelids to be washed into the respiratory system.

Is eye protection necessary?

I would not discourage someone who wanted to wear eye protection — in addition to a mask, of course — from doing so when outside of their home. We simply don’t know enough about transmission of the virus to know exactly where additional personal protective equipment (PPE) is most effective.

The CDC recommends that eye protection be worn by healthcare workers in “areas with moderate to substantial community transmission.” As community spread increases, eye protection is one more layer of protection to help reduce transmission to those on the front lines.

At Baylor Scott & White facilities, all staff is currently required to wear eye protection when interacting with patients. So, next time you go to the doctor’s office, don’t be surprised when you see staff wearing goggles or a face shield. This is for their protection, as well as your own.

Related: What to expect at your in-person doctor’s visit during COVID-19

As of yet, the CDC has not issued any eye protection recommendations for the general public, so it’s a matter of preference. Each individual should assess their own personal risk and determine what behaviors — including any additional PPE — make sense for them and their household.

At a minimum, be sure you wear a mask, wash your hands and remain physically distant from those outside your home as much as possible.

If you decide to wear eye protection, opt for goggles or a face shield, as these appear to be the most effective. Other types of glasses like prescription glasses, reading glasses and sunglasses may provide some benefit but do not provide complete coverage.

Although it is unclear how much protection covering the eyes truly provides, there is no question about the need for a face mask.

This virus is not magical; infections occur when the virus is able to reach your respiratory system through your eyes, nose or mouth. When you are around others outside of your household, keep your nose and mouth covered as much as possible. And wash your hands often!

Follow along with the CDC for the most up to date safety recommendations, and make sure you know what to do if you start showing symptoms.

Now is not the time to let up on these important safety measures. Let’s all do our part to protect our fellow Texans and together, we can beat COVID-19.

About the author

Brett Stauffer, MD, MHS
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Brett Stauffer, MD, MHS, is the Chief Quality Officer for Baylor Scott & White Health.

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COVID-19 fact check: Can you catch it through your eyes?