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Are Contact Lenses Safe to Wear During COVID-19?

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Suspicions are arising that contact lenses may raise risk for COVID-19 transmission. Amy C. Watts, OD, director of the Optometry and Contact Lens Service at Mass. Eye and Ear, discussed if it’s appropriate to switch to glasses during the pandemic.

Whether it’s washing your hands frequently or social distancing, everyone is experiencing lifestyle changes in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In a recent Coronavirus Eye Safety guidance on its website, the American Academy of Ophthalmology said that guarding your eyes is one way to help stop the spread of the virus. They recommended that regular contacts lens users should think about switching to glasses, as contact wearers may touch their eyes more than the average person on a daily basis.

“Consider wearing glasses more often, especially if you tend to touch your eyes a lot when your contacts are in. Substituting glasses for lenses can decrease irritation and force you to pause before touching your eye,” ophthalmologist Sonal Tuli, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said in the statement.

Is it safer to ditch your contact lenses for glasses during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Watts told Focus that she has heard this question from friends, family and patients in recent weeks. She weighed in with some advice for contact lens wearers.

How does COVID-19 enter the eye?

The reasoning behind the recommendation may be that COVID-19 is known to spread through mucus membranes in the face, including the eyes, mouth and nose. The disease, caused by a new coronavirus strain that has been circulating since December. It results in mild to severe respiratory illness including a dry cough, shortness of breath and fever within two to 14 days of exposure. People with severe infections can develop pneumonia, which can be deadly.

Health officials noted that viral pink eye, or conjunctivitis, develops in up to 3 percent of people with COVID-19. The virus can spread by touching fluid from an infected person’s eyes, or from objects that carry the fluid.

However Dr. Watts points out that there is no research that shows people touch their eyes more when wearing contacts versus glasses. Some people might touch their eyes more to fix their contacts, while others might touch their face more to adjust their glasses. There’s simply no evidence either way, she said.

“Not all contact lens wearers need to switch to glasses,” Dr. Watts noted. She explained there would not be an increased risk for people who are working from home and sheltering in place, for example. Dr. Watts added that contact lenses can be a great option for people running or bicycling while practicing social distancing.

“I think its person-to-person dependent,” Dr. Watts told Focus. “There is no straightforward yes or no, contacts still have their place and can remain an option for people.”

Glasses may offer a small protective benefit and serve as a barrier to some large droplets, she said, but regular glasses likely won’t offer the full protection as a pair of safety goggles worn by a health care professional.

Another question Dr. Watts is commonly asked is, if a droplet gets in the eye, and you have a contact lens in, will the disease become worse? She said there’s no evidence to suggest the virus will connect to a lens and be more harmful to the eye, and once exposed to the virus, whether you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses, risk remains the same.

Advice for contact lens wearers

There are still things people who wear contact lenses can do to stay safe during the pandemic, and that includes maintaining typical cleaning and safety measures contact lens wearers might take on a daily basis such as proper hand-washing when taking out and putting in contacts. There’s no need to clean your eyes or lenses extra however, said Dr. Watts.

Many people have to wear medically necessary contact lenses, such as those with kerataconus,  cornea transplant or scarring. “These patients should be reassured that any added risk from COVID-19 is minimal,” said Dr. Watts.

One good idea for contact wearers, she said, is to make sure your prescription is not expired. In some cases, eye treatment centers including clinics at Mass. Eye and Ear, are providing extensions to prescriptions since making an appointment for an eye test may not be possible during the pandemic.

In the event a person who wears contact lenses becomes infected with COVID -19, Dr. Watts says remove the lenses and discard them, and do not wear while ill. The person can resume contact lens wear with a new pair once feeling better.

Ultimately, if you have any questions about your eye wear and eye safety, don’t hesitate to check with your eye doctor, Dr. Watts advised. Here at Mass. Eye and Ear, providers have reduced elective appointments and procedures to comply with Massachusetts state guidelines, but are still receiving messages and speaking with patients virtually.

About Our Expert

Amy C. Watts, OD, is an optometrist and director of both the Optometry and Contact Lens, and Vision Rehabilitation Services at Mass. Eye and Ear. She provides routine and specialized contact lens fittings.

If you need to consult with an eye care provider quickly, Mass. Eye and Ear is pleased to offer virtual (telemedicine) visits. These appointments happen over the telephone or by teleconference, and are designed to help some patients avoid a trip to their doctor’s office or the Emergency Department. Learn more: https://masseyeandear.org/virtual-visits/eye-care.

Mass. Eye and Ear has more information on COVID-19.

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  1. Avatar

    Lou Vaickus MD

    Need to add this to advice to contact lens wearers

    Never remove, replace, or insert contact lenses without washing your hands thoroughly !!!

    • Avatar

      Ryan Jaslow

      Thanks for reading and your comment Lou, we updated to make that important point clearer.