What to Know About COVID-19 and Dry Eye

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Dry eye is when your eyes don't make enough tears, or the tears they make are of poor quality. Dry eye that newly develops can be a less common sign of COVID-19. COVID-19 also causes other eye symptoms, including pink eye.

Having dry eye could feel irritating and make you want to touch your eye area more often, which could raise your risk of getting coronavirus. Your eyes, along with your nose and mouth, are potential ways that COVID-19 can enter the body.

Explore how dry eye affects your risk of getting COVID-19, complications that may develop, how dry eye treatments may affect your risks, and how to stay safe.

Young woman in front of a computer holding and removing her glasses.


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Dry Eye and COVID-19 Risk

Dry eye affects an estimated 3.2 million females and 1.68 million males over age 50 across the United States. Dry eye alone does not raise your risk of contracting coronavirus.

However, dry eye, like many other health conditions, is more common as you get older. Other age-related health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can make you more vulnerable to COVID-19.

If you have severe dry eye, you may have more frequent appointments with your eye doctor. Visiting the eye doctor or any medical specialist more often could increase your exposure to COVID-19.

This is why health experts recommend using social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands frequently. These steps can help lower your risk of contracting COVID-19.

Your eye doctor may have other precautions in place, such as having you wait in your car until your appointment time or limiting the number of people who can join you for an appointment.

Dry eye is also a less common symptom associated with coronavirus. A review of studies with a total of more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients found that 11% of them had eye symptoms. The most common symptoms were:

  • Conjunctivitis, or pink eye: This was found in 89% of patients in the studies focused on eye symptoms. This does not mean that 89% of patients with coronavirus had pink eye. It just means that among those with eye symptoms, 89% of them had pink eye. When you have pink eye, you also usually have a sticky discharge from the eye.
  • Dry eye or the sensation of having a foreign body in the eye: This was found in 16% of COVID-19 patients with eye symptoms.
  • Redness
  • Tearing
  • Itching
  • Eye pain
  • Discharge

When you have dry eye, you may feel other sensations beyond the dryness. You also could feel other effects listed above, like tearing or eye pain.

Yet another connection between COVID-19 and dry eye is the act of wearing a mask. When you wear a mask that doesn't fit right, it could cause the breath from your mouth to blow up toward the eyes.

Over time, that may cause evaporation of the tear film, which coats the front of the eyes. When this protective tear film is no longer present to lubricate the eyes, your eyes may feel drier.

During the pandemic, many people have been using electronic screens more often. When you stare at a screen, you are less likely to blink and lubricate the eyes. This can increase the incidence of dry eye.

Complications of Dry Eye and COVID-19

There are no known complications regarding dry eye and COVID-19. Research in this area is ongoing.

If you develop pink eye or newly developed dry eye, your eye doctor will likely want to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, including:

Dry Eye Treatments and COVID-19

Treatments for dry eye include:

  • Artificial tears and ointments
  • Steroid eye drops and other medicated eye drops
  • Omega-3 fatty acid supplements

The treatments for dry eye will not affect the severity of COVID-19 if you have the virus. Some research indicates that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can help reduce death from COVID-19 and could have antiviral effects. However, this research is still under exploration.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have dry eye?

Yes. There is no reason to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine if you have dry eye. However, always check with your doctor first to provide guidance specific to other health conditions you may have.

Do people with dry eye have a higher chance of serious complications from COVID-19?

No. Having dry eye does not raise your risk for COVID-19's more serious complications.

How high is my risk of exposure to COVID-19 if I go to the eye doctor's office for dry eye treatment?

Your risk of COVID-19 exposure increases any time you are in close contact with others. Consider telehealth appointments if your eye doctor offers them unless you have a true eye emergency and until the COVID-19 pandemic lessens. Signs of an eye emergency include:

  • A red eye
  • A painful eye
  • Eye trauma
  • Sudden vision changes

Is my risk for COVID-19 higher if I have dry eye and wear contact lenses?

Dry eye is more common among those who wear contact lenses. There's no research to show that wearing contact lenses on its own raises your risk for the coronavirus.

However, those who wear contacts are more likely to touch their eyes. If you wear contact lenses and your hands are not clean, you have a greater chance of spreading germs, including droplets from COVID-19, when you touch or rub your eyes.

How to Stay Safe

Follow these tips:

  • Have the medications you need on hand to avoid extra trips to the pharmacy or eye doctor's office. If you use prescription drugs, find out if your insurance can cover a three-month supply.
  • Stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines to stay safe from COVID-19 as they change through the pandemic. Follow the current guidance regarding measures such as social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands.
  • Do your best to avoid touching or rubbing your face, including your eyes and eye area. Touching your face is an easy way to spread germs.
  • Consider wearing glasses instead of contact lenses to reduce your risk of exposure. This can make your eyes feel less irritated and lessen the number of times you'll touch your face.
  • If you still will be wearing contact lenses, always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before inserting and removing your lenses.
  • Consider wearing safety goggles if you have to care for someone with coronavirus. Although glasses can offer some protection, it's still possible for virus droplets to enter the eyes. That's why safety goggles could provide better protection.
  • Make sure that any mask that you wear fits snugly to avoid mask-induced dry eye. Find a mask with adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge. Use medical tape if needed to seal your mask.
  • If you have an upcoming eye doctor appointment, let the office know in advance if you have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus or if you have symptoms such as fever or a newly developed cough. They will likely want you to reschedule your appointment.
  • Find out if your eye doctor offers telehealth appointments.
  • Get vaccinated for COVID-19 if your doctor says it's OK.

Summary

Having dry eye does not raise your risk of contracting COVID-19. Dry eye can be a symptom of COVID-19, but it's a less common symptom. Continue to use any dry eye treatments as recommended by your doctor to soothe your dry eyes and stay more comfortable during the pandemic.

A Word From Verywell

When you have a chronic condition such as dry eye, it pays to be alert for any new or changing symptoms. More common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever or shortness of breath. Continue to follow public health guidelines to prevent exposure and reduce your risks.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed. As new research becomes available, we'll update this article. For the latest on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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