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Keep your eye on not touching your eyes, handy tips from a WVU ophthalmologist

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Geoffrey Bradford WVU Photo

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You’re not imagining things: it really is hard to stop touching your eyes, even though you know that’s important to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We all touch our faces many times throughout any given day—be it an itchy eye or nose, a bothersome contact lens, a wipe across our mouth or to simply rest our chin in the palm of our hand,” said West Virginia University ophthalmologist Geoffrey Bradford. “Short of wearing handcuffs or a doggie cone, it seems impossible to avoid doing these things.”

Bradford practices at the Eye Institute. He also directs the residency program in the School of Medicine’s Department Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, and he is the department’s vice-chair of education. 

He has tips for keeping SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—out of our eyes. And none of them involve handcuffs or a doggie cone.

How do I stop touching and rubbing my eyes? What if I slip up and catch myself doing it?
Well, the virus gets from surfaces onto your hands before you put them to your face. So be diligent about washing your hands, and do it often. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you and use it, or place several bottles strategically where you’ll remember to use them throughout the day. Using wipes or spray disinfectant, clean surfaces with which you frequently come into contact, like your desk, keyboard, steering wheel or phone. Keep a box of tissues around. Use one in your hand to scratch an itch when you need to. Or just pull the string in your hoodie really tight so your face stays covered. 

It’s hard enough to stop touching my own eyes. But how do I get my kids to do it?
Trying to be a good parent and getting kids to obey is the toughest job on earth. Keeping kiddie fingers from probing noses, mouths and tired eyes is a task at which even the strongest Marvel superheroes would fail. So simply remember that germs come from the hands, which get them from anything that is touched, which for a child is everything! Wash hard toys regularly with soap and water, or clean them with Lysol wipes and let them dry. Machine-wash soft toys. Keep a child’s play area as clean as feasible. Don’t share toys with others outside the family. Keep children away from people who may be sick, even a best friend or a much-loved grandparent. It’s just for a time, and lots of love and laughter together can make up for it later. 

Is there anything I can do to make my eyes less itchy and irritated to begin with? Do humidifiers help? What about over-the-counter allergy medication?
Humidifiers may help with the dry air in winter, but in more humid, warm weather, they probably won’t add much to relieve dry eyes. Artificial tears come over-the-counter and in many brands. Often drugstores have their own brand. They’re inexpensive and can be used regularly to soothe itchy or dry eyes. OTC allergy drops—or even oral allergy meds—may work, too, for those whose eyes are really irritated by pollen, but often prescription allergy eyedrops are more effective. Start with your pharmacy, but reach out to your physician if you need more help. Finally, a clean, moist, warm washcloth over our eyes at the end of the workday may work wonders to bring relief to weary peepers. 

Why is it so important that I not touch my eyes right now? The novel coronavirus lives in the lungs. What do my eyes have to do with anything?
Just like the hip bone is connected to the leg bone, so are the eyes connected to the nasal passages and throat through the tear duct. Our tear glands make tears, which drain away from the eyes through tiny tear ducts that go into the nose. We typically end up swallowing our tears this way. This is why sometimes eyedrop medicines leave a taste in the back of our mouth. Fortunately, our tears contain infection-fighting immune compounds to often limit the spread of germs, but with the novel coronavirus, our bodies don’t yet have that ability, so germs from the eye can get to the throat and go down our windpipe to the lungs.

For people who wear contact lenses, it is imperative hands are clean to put in and take out the lenses. Lenses cases must also be kept clean. It’s even better nowadays to wear glasses instead of contact lenses to act as a partial barrier to keep our fingers away. For those of us in the healthcare setting, we often wear plastic goggles over our glasses these days as an extra precaution to keep our eyes protected from coughs and sneezes from others. 

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.

Additional Resources:
​​​​​​​Six things your ophthalmologist wants you to know about coronavirus



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