Is Wearing Contacts During the Coronavirus Pandemic a Bad Idea?
At this point, you've gotten the don't-touch-your-face memo surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, whether through government recommendations or memes. But if you wear contact lenses, touching your face serves a pretty crucial function in your daily routine. With all the adjustments you've likely already made, you might be wondering if you can at least get away with wearing contacts during the coronavirus pandemic.
If you're looking for an official stance, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)'s take is that switching to glasses is worthwhile. In a statement on eye safety amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the AAO advises opting for glasses among other protective measures. "Consider wearing glasses more often, especially if you tend to touch your eyes a lot when your contacts are in," ophthalmologist Sonal Tuli, M.D., a spokesperson for the AAO, is quoted in the statement. "Substituting glasses for lenses can decrease irritation and force you to pause before touching your eye." (Related: How to Safely Handle Your Groceries During the Coronavirus Pandemic)
Kevin Lee, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Golden Gate Eye Associates within the Pacific Vision Eye Institute, agrees, saying he's been recommending patients who usually wear contacts to "avoid wearing them" as much as possible right now.
Coronavirus aside, because people who wear contacts tend to touch their eyes more, they're actually more at risk for eye infections in general, notes Rupa Wong, M.D., a pediatric ophthalmologist. "They have a higher risk of corneal infections and conjunctivitis–pink eye–due to bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi," explains Dr. Wong. "This is especially true if contact lens-wearers do not practice good hygiene such as sleeping in contacts, cleaning their lenses improperly, not washing their hands, or extending the wear of their contacts past the recommended date." (Related: Can the Coronavirus Cause Diarrhea?)
And circling back to the COVID-19 pandemic, trading contacts for glasses might protect you from catching the virus from others, adds Dr. Lee. "Glasses are kind of like a shield around the eyes," he says. "Let's say someone who has the coronavirus sneezes. Glasses can shield your eyes from the little respiratory droplets. If you're wearing contacts, the respiratory droplets can still get into your eyeballs." That said, glasses don't provide foolproof protection, says Dr. Wong. "Virus particles can still enter the eyes through the sides, bottom, or top of the glasses," she explains. "That's why healthcare workers should wear a full face shield when caring for COVID-19 patients."
So, just to be safe, contact lens-wearers could consider switching to glasses until further notice. But you don't necessarily need to avoid contacts at all costs, says Dr. Wong. For instance, when you're quarantined at home, as long as you're practicing proper hand hygiene, wearing your lenses likely presents little risk of catching the virus, she notes. "But I would err on the side of caution especially when out in public spaces, and switch to glasses," he explains. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)
There is some wiggle room. "To mitigate any risk, experts suggest that those wearing contact lenses can discontinue use out of an abundance of caution, but it is not something to be overly worried about as long as people are continuously practicing good hygiene and washing their hands prior to touching their eyes," says Kristen Hokeness, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Science and Technology at Bryant University. (Refresher: Here's how to correctly wash your hands.)
And in case you were wondering, COVID-19 seems to be more easily transmitted through the nose and mouth than through the eyes, adds Hokeness. "The risk of transmission from touching your eyes versus your nose or mouth is very low," she explains. "The main route of spread is through the acquisition of infected droplets via the mouth or the nose." But it's worth noting that not all viruses are the same in that respect. "Some common viruses, such as adenoviruses, can be highly transmissible through contact with the eye," says Hokeness. "Others, such as influenza, appear to be more aligned with how COVID-19 is spread, meaning [transmission through the eye] is plausible but unlikely."
TL;DR: If you're a contact lens-wearer who wants to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, switching to glasses isn't exactly a necessity, but it's still a good idea for now. Even if you normally hate wearing them, you might benefit from making them part of your quarantine look.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.