As we’ve mentioned before, you’re not supposed to touch your face because of those gaping, germ-hungry little holes that are your nose and mouth. When you touch your face with your grubby hands, you’re giving viruses and bacteria the chance to waltz right on into your immune system through these passages. But what about the other two wet membranes on your face — your eyeballs? Could the coronavirus be passed to you through those gorgeous peepers of yours? And can coronavirus be spread through your contact lenses?
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to halt your traditional eye-touching activities, such as putting in those lenses. Like influenza viruses, COVID-19 can indeed be contracted through your eyeball. In fact, one of the earliest experts of COVID-19, respiratory specialist Wang Guangfa of Peking University First Hospital in Beijing, believes he contracted the virus through his eyes after developing conjunctivitis followed by flu symptoms while visiting patients in Wuhan. “At that time we were highly vigilant and wore N95 masks,” he wrote on the Chinese social media site Weibo. “But then I suddenly realized that we didn’t wear protective glasses.” Following this, medical professionals in China were instructed to wear protective eyewear when in direct contact with patients.
In Guangfa’s case, it’s thought that a respiratory droplet (i.e., spit or snot) may have landed in his eyes. Experts aren’t entirely certain whether coronavirus can be spread through hand-to-eye contact but given the number of uncertainties surrounding the virus, precaution seems wise.
When it comes to touching your own eyeballs, though, this is always true: Coronavirus or not, you ought to be rather militant about your ocular hygiene if you’re a contact lens wearer. Contact lenses put you at an increased risk for eye infections, basically just because they require you to touch your eyes more often than you ordinarily would. Worse, contact lenses essentially act as a trap for bacteria and other nastiness. That’s why you’re not supposed to sleep, exercise, swim or shower in them — any activity where your eyes might be moving around a ton or be exposed to steam, sweat or other contorting substances turn contact lenses into a welcome mat for infections.
That said, your contact lenses are designed to withstand some bacterial beating. After all, at the end of the day, you’re either tossing your lenses in the trash or into some cleaning solution. (Problems typically arise when you screw this up, either by reusing lenses intended only for one-day use — something I’m regularly guilty of — or by improperly cleaning long-wear pairs.) Contact lens solution contains antimicrobial agents capable of killing off bacteria. These solutions are different than saline, which is only intended to be used as a rinse following other cleaning systems.
Today, most lens-wearers use a multipurpose solution or hydrogen peroxide-based system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, both are effective at disinfecting lenses when used properly. Said proper use requires that lenses are cleaned and placed in fresh solution each time they’re removed. Mixing bottles of solution can render them less effective. Further, lens cases should be cleaned, dried and stored upside down whenever they’re not in use. And of course, you’re supposed to wash your hands before putting on or removing your lenses.
Skipping any of these steps could put you at risk for infections like staph or conjunctivitis. However, unless you’re sticking your fingers in the mouth of someone with coronavirus and then touching your eyeball, contact lenses probably won’t make you any more susceptible to that particular virus. But again, you should definitely be concerned about the other viruses your eyeballs can catch.
So don’t practice safe contact lens wear because you want to avoid the coronavirus: Practice safe contact lens wear because you want to avoid eyeball herpes.