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How Your Eyes May Play a Role in the Coronavirus Epidemic

Our eyes might potentially play an important role in the spread and prevention of the new COVID-19 outbreak threatening multiple countries around the world. For example, a Peking University physician believes he may have contracted the coronavirus while not wearing eye protection when treating patients. Medical officials, though, say while this is possible, it may be unlikely.

To reduce your risk of contracting the coronavirus, it is recommended to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. The World Health Organization also recommends protective eyewear, among other precautions, if you will be near someone with the new virus for an extended period.

The relationship between the new coronavirus and your eyes is complicated. It’s thought that COVID-19 spreads from person to person mainly through airborne “respiratory droplets” that are produced when someone coughs or sneezes, much like the flu virus spreads, the CDC says. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, and can possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Medical experts are unsure whether someone can get this virus by touching a surface or object, such as a table or doorknob, that has the new coronavirus on it, and then touching their mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. Peking University respiratory specialist Wang Guangfa believes he contracted the new strain of coronavirus when he came into contact with patients at health clinics in China.

washing hands

Wang reported that his left eye became inflamed afterward, followed by a fever and a buildup of mucus in his nose and throat. He subsequently was diagnosed with new coronavirus. According to the South China Morning Post , Wang thinks the virus entered his left eye because he wasn’t wearing protective eyewear.

Dr. Jan Evans Patterson , professor of medicine and pathology in the Long School of Medicine’s infectious diseases division at UT Health San Antonio, confirms that a scenario like Wang’s could potentially happen. In Wang’s situation, she says, respiratory droplets from an infected person might have reached his eyes or other mucus membranes (mouth or nose).
Generally, though, transmission of the new coronavirus comes with so many unknowns that it’s “plausible but unlikely” that it would spread through hand-to-eye contact, says Dr. Stephen Thomas , chief of infectious diseases at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.

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