Practice Policy Update Regarding COVID-19

Written By: Reena Mukamal

Preventive care may be delayed during the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), but treatment for eye emergencies is as important as ever. Here’s how to protect your eyes — and how to tell when you need urgent care from an ophthalmologist or other medical doctor.

Coronavirus can spread through the eyes

Coronavirus causes mild to severe respiratory illness. Symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath can show up 2 to 14 days after a person is exposed. People with severe infections can develop pneumonia and die from complications of the illness.

Limiting eye exposure can help. Here’s why:

  • When a sick person coughs or talks, virus particles can spray from their mouth or nose into another person’s face. You’re most likely to inhale these droplets through your mouth or nose, but they can also enter through your eyes.
  • You can also become infected by touching something that has the virus on it — like a table or doorknob — and then touching your eyes.

Routine eye care may be delayed during the pandemic

For everyone’s health and safety, eye clinics are being urged not to see patients during the coronavirus pandemic except for urgent or emergency care. This is important for two reasons:

  • Limiting contact between doctors and patients is key to helping reduce the spread of the coronavirus;
  • The entire nation must conserve vital disposable medical supplies (like masks and faceshields) so they can be used in hospitals where they are most needed right now.

While most in-person visits may be rescheduled, some practices are using telemedicine to offer “virtual” visits over the phone or video chat over a computer.

Urgent eye issues can be treated in the clinic

You may feel nervous about going to the doctor’s office during the pandemic. But treatment for eye emergencies should not be delayed. Rest assured that ophthalmologists, like all medical professionals, follow strict hygiene and disinfection guidelines.

Ophthalmologists are available to treat urgent eye issues, deliver eye injections and provide critical care. Call your ophthalmologist or other medical doctor as soon as possible in the following situations:

If you visit the clinic in person during the coronavirus pandemic, expect changes to eye exams and procedures:

  • The clinic may ask you to wait outside, or in your car, instead of in the normal waiting room. This is to protect you, the other patients, and the office staff from possible virus exposure in crowded waiting areas.
  • The clinic is likely restricting the number of people that enter. If you do not need someone to be there with you, please do not bring anyone to your appointment.
  • Your eye doctor may use a special plastic breath shield on the slit lamp machine they use to look into your eyes. They may also wear a mask with a plastic shield over their eyes.
  • Your doctor may ask you to wait to speak until after your eye exam is complete. Then they can talk with you and answer questions when they can be a safe distance from you.

Protect yourself and the eye care team by following these precautions:

  • If you have a cough or a fever, or have been in close contact with someone who has these symptoms, you must call your doctor’s office ahead of time and let them know. If your visit is not an emergency, you may need to stay home.
  • If you arrive sick, your doctor may ask you to wear a protective covering or mask, and to wait in a special room away from other patients.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze during your exam, move back from the microscope. Bury your face in the crook of your arm or cover your face with a tissue. Wash your hands with soap and water right away.

How to help yourself and others

Experts say guarding your eyes — as well as your hands and mouth — can slow the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s important to remember that although there is a lot of concern about coronavirus, common sense precautions can significantly reduce your risk of getting infected. So wash your hands a lot, follow good contact lens hygiene and avoid touching or rubbing your nose, mouth and especially your eyes,” says ophthalmologist Sonal Tuli, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

1. The coronavirus may cause pink eye, so avoid touching eye discharge.

If you see someone with pink eye, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean that person is infected with coronavirus. But a recent study from China suggests that up to one third of people hospitalized with coronavirus experience eye problems, such as viral pink eye or conjunctivitis. It’s important to know that the virus can spread by touching fluid from an infected person’s eyes, or from objects that carry the fluid.

2. If you wear contact lenses, consider switching to glasses for a while.

There’s no evidence that wearing contact lenses increases your risk of coronavirus infection. But contact lens wearers touch their eyes more than the average person, Dr. Tuli points out. “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,” she advises. If you continue wearing contact lenses, follow these hygiene tips.

3. Wearing glasses may add a layer of protection.

Corrective lenses or sunglasses can shield your eyes from infected respiratory droplets. But they don’t provide 100% security. The virus can still reach your eyes from the exposed sides, tops and bottoms of your glasses. If you’re caring for a sick patient or potentially exposed person, safety goggles may offer a stronger defense.

4. Stock up on eye medicine prescriptions if you can.

Experts advise patients to stock up on critical medications, so that you’ll have enough to get by if you are quarantined or if supplies become limited during an outbreak. But this may not be possible for everyone. If your insurance allows you to get more than 1 month of essential eye medicine, such as glaucoma drops, you should do so. Some insurers will approve a 3-month supply of medication in times of natural disaster. Ask your pharmacist or ophthalmologist for help if you have trouble getting approval from your insurance company. And as always, request a refill as soon as you’re due. Don’t wait until the last minute to contact your pharmacy. 

5. Avoid rubbing your eyes.

We all do it. While it can be hard to break this natural habit, doing so will lower your risk of infection. If you feel an urge to itch or rub your eye or even to adjust your glasses, use a tissue instead of your fingers. Dry eyes can lead to more rubbing, so consider adding moisturizing drops to your eye routine. If you must touch your eyes for any reason — even to administer eye medicine — wash your hands first with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Then wash them again afterwards.

6. Practice safe hygiene and social distancing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer these general guidelines to slow the spread of disease:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • You should especially wash your hands before eating, after using the restroom, sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose.
  • If you can’t get to a sink, use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face — particularly your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover your face with your elbow or a tissue. If you use a tissue, throw it away promptly. Then go wash your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people. If you think someone has a respiratory infection, it’s safest to stay 6 feet away.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Regularly disinfect commonly touched surfaces and items in your house, such as doorknobs and counter tops.

 Download the PDF version of this article in English or in Spanish.

Content shared from the AAO

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