Can you catch COVID-19 through your eyes? What to know about eye transmission

Dr. Joseph Fair revealed that he believes he caught the coronavirus through his eyes during a recent, packed flight.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Maura Hohman

The coronavirus is most commonly transmitted through the nose and mouth, but it's also possible to get COVID-19 through your eyes, according to experts.

Dr. Joseph Fair, an NBC News contributor and virologist, told TODAY on Wednesday that he believes he caught the coronavirus during a recent, full flight from New York City to New Orleans. He said he was taking "max precautions," including wearing a face mask and gloves, but he didn't have eye protection and was sitting right next to another person.

How does the coronavirus enter through eyes?

"It usually happens because of contact," NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres told TODAY. "You touch something, and you rub your eye and you get it in that way."

Another, less common way COVID-19 eye transmission can occur is if someone coughs or sneezes on you and you don't protect your eyes.

The coronavirus then binds to receptors on the surface of the eyes and spreads throughout the body, Torres explained. He added that receptors in the nose distribute virus droplets in a similar way.

It's important to note, though, that they don't work exactly the same. For example, when a virus lingers in the air after someone sneezes, its aerosols can enter the nose and mouth and infect the body. This "isn't a concern" for the eyes, Torres said.

How common is eye transmission of COVID-19?

Catching the coronavirus through your eyes is much less common than through your nose or mouth for two reasons, Torres explained.

First, it's a respiratory virus so it's more "attuned" to the nose and mouth. Second, when you're near someone sneezing or coughing, your first reaction is usually to blink, which prevents the droplets from entering your eyes.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House's coronavirus task force has also asserted that contracting the virus through the eyes is the least common method, according to Torres.

That said, Torres wouldn't call COVID-19 eye transmission a "rare" occurrence. There's currently no data on how often it happens.

How to protect your eyes from the coronavirus

Whether you should take precautions to protect your eyes from the coronavirus depends on where you are, according to Torres.

For example, you may consider wearing glasses or goggles "if you're in an area where you can't (practice) social distancing" or "if you're around people ... coughing or sneezing a lot," he said.

But, he added, "For the majority of us just walking around every day, especially outside, other than sunglasses or regular vision glasses, I'm not sure that (eye protection, like goggles) would add that much benefit."