We asked the experts whether COVID-19 can cause impaired vision.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
Both Boris Johnson and his top aide Dominic Cummings say they believe COVID-19 may have affected their eyesight. However, eye problems are not recognised on the UK list of coronavirus symptoms.
At the time of writing, a high temperature, new continuous cough, and loss of taste or smell are still considered the most common signs of the virus. We asked optometrists, doctors, and other medical experts whether coronavirus can cause impaired vision.
Coronavirus eye problems
COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Some infected people develop mild to moderate symptoms, while others require hospitalisation. However, cases of impaired vision alongside coronavirus infection are rare.
‘There is currently no clinical evidence to suggest that coronavirus affects the ability to see clearly,’ says Specsavers clinical services director, Giles Edmonds. ‘Eye-related symptoms of the disease have been noted, but are incredibly rare and do not directly impact vision.
‘There is currently no clinical evidence to suggest that coronavirus affects the ability to see clearly.’
‘For example, one of the side effects is conjunctivitis, but this in turn is a very common eye condition and can be caused by a number of factors aside from bacteria and viruses, including allergies such as hay fever,’ he adds.
Coronavirus eye infection
In a large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers documented ‘conjunctival congestion’ in 0.8% of patients with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 from 30 hospitals across China. The condition makes the eyes water and feel gritty and uncomfortable, rather than painful, and does not usually interfere with eyesight.
While coronavirus can cause conjunctivitis, it is rare, occurring in only 1-3% of affected people. As such, the World Health Organisation has added conjunctivitis to its list of ‘less common’ symptoms of coronavirus, which also includes aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhoea, headache, skin rash, and discolouration of fingers or toes.
‘As with other bacterial and viral eye infections, it can be highly contagious especially if someone touches the sticky – or in the case of a viral infection, watery – discharge from the eyes, or touches objects contaminated by the discharge,’ says Dan McGhee, professional services director at Vision Express. ‘You must wash and sanitise your hands frequently, and should not share towels, cups or utensils with others.’
Coronavirus eye symptoms
Also known as red or pink eye, conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes, making them bloodshot, itchy and watery, with a burning or gritty sensation. It may also produce pus that sticks to eyelashes. It’s usually caused by allergies or an infection.
‘When it is associated with COVID-19, it tends to be in the later stages of the disease and alongside more common symptoms, such as a continuous cough and fever or loss of taste and smell,’ says Edmonds. ‘If you have none of the other symptoms associated with coronavirus infection then it is unlikely to be the cause.’
If you develop conjunctivitis and do not have the other signs and symptoms of Covid-19, call their optician to ask for advice on how to treat the condition if necessary. However, symptoms often improve on their own.
‘Depending on the cause, you may need to use antibiotic drops to clear the infection or antihistamines if it is the result of an allergic reaction,’ says Edmond. ‘It is also important not to irritate your eyes further, so avoid wearing contact lenses or make-up until it clears up.’
Coronavirus eye transmission
Even though Covid-19 is a respiratory infection, it could potentially spread to the eyes. Just as virus droplets can be spread through our mouth and nose, viruses such as Covid-19 also have the potential to infect a person’s eyes, says McGhee.
‘When we sneeze, cough or even talk uncovered, we spray tiny virus particles from our mouth or nose onto another person’s face which can be inhaled and also infect the eyes,’ he says. ‘You might also infect yourself by touching your eyes after coming into contact with someone who has the virus or something that has virus particles on it.’
If you wear contact lenses, consider switching to glasses
‘There’s no evidence that wearing contact lenses increase your risk of coronavirus infection, however wearing lenses means you may touch your eyes more often than the average person,’ says McGhee. ‘By wearing glasses you could minimise any irritation and be less inclined to touch your eyes. Keep hands clean at all times and make sure you sanitise regularly.’
Avoid rubbing your eyes
‘It can be hard to break this natural habit, but doing so will lower your risk of infection,’ he says. ‘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 moisturising drops to your eye routine. If you must touch your eyes for any reason, be sure to wash your hands first with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Then wash them again after touching your eyes.’
Practice safe hygiene and social distancing
‘Wash your hands frequently and for 20 seconds with soap and water,’ McGhee adds. ‘Follow good contact lens hygiene and avoid touching or rubbing your nose, mouth and eyes.’
Coronavirus eyesight: the takeaway
There’s little cause for concern when it comes to your eyesight. While COVID-19 can cause conjunctivitis and, rarely, some mild retinal changes, there is no evidence to support any impact on vision, says Amir Hamid, consultant eye surgeon and Medical Director for Vision Correction at specialist eye hospital Optegra.
‘The British Emergency Eye Care Society is aware that COVID-19 patients may develop a red, watery eye during their illness,’ he continues. ‘The condition will resolve without eye drops and therefore they advise not to go to an eye department.’
While coronavirus is not known to effect visual acuity, if you are concerned about your vision, do not drive. ‘Individuals should not take to driving to test if their eyesight has been affected by COVID-19 or otherwise,’ says McGhee. ‘If you are worried at all, you should make an appointment with your local optician.’