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Can COVID Affect Your Eye Health? A Growing Body of Evidence Suggests So

Vogue Arabia, March 2017. Photo: Valentina Frugiuele

Seeing as we’ve been dealing with it for years now, it’s easy to underestimate the symptoms of Covid-19.

But the virus is more sophisticated and complicated than we initially thought, and health experts are discovering more information about it everyday.

Doctors are warning that we’re not complacent when it comes to the link between Covid-19 and our eye health – research has found that not only can a compromised immune system make you more susceptible to eye infection, issues with your eyes are also a symptom of the virus itself.

Dr Nisa Aslam, GP and ambassador for eye care treatment brand Golden Eye, answers all the questions that need addressing about the link between Covid and your eye health.

How is Covid linked with our eyes, and can it infect them?

“While Covid-19 is commonly associated with infection of the lungs, heart and other vital organs, a growing body of evidence suggests that a Covid-19 infection can also impact the eye,” Dr Aslam says. “Approximately 1 in 10 people exposed to Covid-19 experience at least one eye problem, such as dryness, redness, blurred vision and sensitivity to light.”

She adds that conjunctivitis can be either a symptom of side effect of Covid. “It may appear in the early stages of Covid infection,” she says. This is partially because you could catch the virus through your eyes themselves.

Dr Aslam suggests that conjunctivitis “could be a symptom of the Omicron variant specifically”. It may also be that your eyes may be the only part of your body that faces symptoms. “Case studies have found that conjunctivitis is present in people who test positive for coronavirus, even if they are otherwise asymptomatic,” Dr Aslam says.

How exactly do we catch Covid through our eyes?

“Covid variants enter the body through cell receptors and some of these are present in the eye,” Dr Aslam explains. “These receptors are found in different parts of the eye – cells that line the retina, whites of the eye and eyelid.”

What symptoms should I be looking for?

Dr Aslam recommends looking out for the following:

– The white of one or both of your eyes looking red or pink

– Your eyelids are inflamed and sore

– One or both of your eyes feeling gritty and/or itchy

– White or yellow sticky discharge coming from one or both of your eyes

Are our eyes more susceptible to infection and poor health since the pandemic?

Unsurprisingly, our screen time usage soared once the pandemic began and lockdown rules tightened. With nowhere else to go, many of us sought refuge in TV shows, WhatsApp chats and extended WFH hours.

Dr Aslam warns that increased screen time will impact our eye health. “Sitting in front of a screen all day may cause us to blink less often. This can present a big problem for the eyes as blinking is essential to spread tears over the ocular surface,” she says.

“If this isn’t happening at the required rate, the tear film can evaporate, which can irritate the cells lining the cornea, leading to inflammation and discomfort.

“Plus, the blue light from a screen is a powerful suppressor of melatonin, which we need to secrete to get a good night’s sleep. Being exposed to it for prolonged periods, especially before bedtime can mean it takes us longer to get to sleep, and result in poorer quality sleep. This, in turn, can influence how well our body’s immune system is able to fight off infections like conjunctivitis, styes and blepharitis.

“In addition to the possibility of Covid-generated eye symptoms, conjunctivitis usually strikes when a person’s immune system is low,” Dr Aslam says. “So if you catch Covid you may be more susceptible to conjunctivitis too.”

What treatment can help if my eyes are infected while I have Covid?

According to Dr Aslam, COVID conjunctivitis is “like any other form of viral conjunctivitis”, so requires similar treatment.

“It can be managed over the counter topical eye drops and/or eye ointment, unless it is associated with serious eye complications involving the cornea (e.g. corneal ulceration or scarring) or serious eye infection,” she says.

There are also some home remedies and habits that can help: “Make sure you keep your eyes clean using a clean pad of cotton wool in each eye, soaked in cooled boiled water. Hold a cold flannel on your closed eyes for a few moments to reduce inflammation,” Dr Aslam advises.

“Do not wear your contact lenses or use eye makeup until your eyes are better. Do not share flannels and towels and wash pillow cases frequently in hot water.”

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