How does COVID-19 affect your eyes?

By The Health News Team | February 7, 2022
Woman wearing mask rubbing her eyes

They may be baby blue, beautiful brown or groovy green. Whatever their color, the eyes are the second most complex organ after the brain and are made up of more than 2 million working parts. In fact, you only see one-sixth of the eyes when looking in the mirror.

We rely on our eyes thousands of times a day. Unfortunately, among the many challenges related to COVID-19, some people’s eye health has been negatively affected during the pandemic.

Pandemic-related eye problems
According to Dr. Gayle Howard, a board-certified ophthalmologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group and Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, even the use of face masks has caused some eye troubles. In the past two years, she reports there has been an increase in dry eye diagnoses.

“Wearing a mask forces the airflow upward, out of the mask, causing dry eye,” Dr. Howard says. “And the positioning of the face masks on the lower lid may cause it to be pulled downward, causing greater exposure and worsened dry eye.”

But don’t ditch those masks. With a few adjustments for a snug fit, you can remove any gaps that allow air to leak out of your mask. This will help you avoid dry eye, and ensure you continue to use this effective method to protect you from getting COVID-19, which can lead to a variety of eye conditions.

These include:

  • Decreased tear production due to inflammation in the lacrimal gland — the gland above the eye that produces tears

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye

“There have been rare reports of episcleritis and iritis — more serious inflammation of the front parts of the eye,” Dr. Howard adds. “These conditions require immediate medical intervention.”

The American Academy of Ophthalmology also advises that after having COVID-19, some people will develop eye conditions ranging from mild to vision-threatening. These include:

  • “Cotton wool” spots — Blood clots prevent nutrients from reaching the retina, and the tissue in the retina begins to swell and die.

  • “Eye stroke” or retinal artery occlusion — Blood clots in the arteries of the retina block the flow of oxygen, causing cells to die, sometimes causing sudden, painless vision loss.

  • Retinal vein occlusion — A vein in the retina becomes blocked, raising blood pressure levels inside the eye, which can cause bleeding, swelling and fluid leaks, and lead to vision changes from blurry vision to sudden, permanent blindness.

  • Retinal hemorrhage — Blood vessels in the retina start bleeding, sometimes due to retinal vein occlusion, and can lead to blind spots and gradual or sudden loss of vision.

Dr. Howard encourages everyone to make an effort to maintain their eye health. Have a vision exam every year. And seek care from an ophthalmologist if you had COVID-19 and notice changes to your eye health or vision; have eye pain or dryness; get an eye infection; or are experiencing pressure in your eyes.

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