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Should I swap my contact lenses for glasses during COVID?

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We have long known that viruses and other germs can enter the body through mucous membranes on the face including those in the eyes, nose and mouth. This is the reason that the recommendations to prevent the spread of coronavirus have always been “wash your hands and don’t touch your face.” For coronavirus, the main point of entry does seem to be through the nose, hence it is important to keep your nose covered by your mask. That said, a small percentage of patients do have eye symptoms ranging from excessive tearing or itchy eyes, to conjunctival discharge or conjunctivitis (pink eye), but that does not necessarily mean the virus entered through their eyes. 

Given what we know, eye protection and face shields have been recommended for people in certain high-risk occupations or positions, which led a team of researchers in China to question whether simply wearing glasses was protecting individuals from disease. The small observational study did indeed find that people who wear glasses regularly were less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. By determining the percentage of hospitalized patients who wore glasses, 5.8% of the 276, and comparing that to the 31.5% of the nearby population in that area, they calculated that hospital admissions were five times lower than might be expected in the bespectacled population. Unfortunately, since this was a small observational study, it’s important to remember that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. There are many other factors that could have contributed to the results and in order to prove causation, a controlled trial would need to be done that looked at variables including age, socioeconomic status, and living situations.

So while it seems that wearing glasses may make you less susceptible to COVID-19, the authors themselves did not even conclude that more protective gear should be recommended, but rather simply that “the eye may be an important infection route for COVID-19, and more attention should be paid to preventive measures such as frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the eyes.” Of note, this study did NOT include individuals that wore contacts, but if you are choosing between contacts and glasses and plan to be around other people, it’s probably not a bad idea to opt for glasses as long as you are comfortable wearing them and won’t be more tempted to touch your face to adjust them. You can read more about this topic in a recent NYT article.

(Jackie Phillips, MD, September 23, 2020)