Coronavirus? Can the virus be spread through tears? Here’s what the evidence says
Coronavirus death toll in the UK has jumped to 578 today, which marks the biggest daily rise yet. Health officials have also recorded 2,100 more cases over the last 24 hours, but the total number of unconfirmed cases is pure guesswork at this stage. Integral to the government’s response to the crisis is to understand more about how the pathogen is transmitted from person to person.
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The current social distancing measures, which have instructed the UK population to stay at home, are informed by what the science says about how the pathogen spreads.
What does the science say so far?
Researchers have established that coronavirus spreads through mucus and droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing.
However, it has been a point of contention whether the virus is spread through other bodily fluids, such as tears.
New evidence published in Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, may have found an answer to this question.
The research provides evidence that it is unlikely that infected patients are shedding virus through their tears, with one important caveat.
None of the patients in the study had conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye.
However, health officials believe pink eye develops in just one to three percent of people with coronavirus.
To arrive at this verdict, Ivan Seah, MBBS, and his colleagues at the National University Hospital in Singapore collected tear samples from 17 patients with COVID-19 from the time they showed symptoms until they recovered about 20 days later.
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Neither viral culture nor reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) detected the virus in their tears throughout the two-week course of the disease.
Dr. Seah also took samples from the back of the nose and throat during the same time period.
While the patients’ tears were clear of virus, their noses and throats were teeming with COVID-19.
The study’s authors conclude that their findings, coupled with the low incidence of pink eye among infected patients, suggests that the risk of virus transmission through tears is low.
Dr. Seah said he hopes their work helps to guide more research into preventing virus transmission through more significant routes, such as droplets and fecal-oral spread.
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This finding should not be interpreted as an endorsement to not protect your eyes, however.
The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets could enter your system by coming into contact with your eyes.
It is therefore important to stay vigilant and abide by the social distancing measures that advise standing two metres apart from anyone outside of your household.
The NHS has also issued a series of hygiene recommendations to reduce the risk of you and anyone you live with getting ill with coronavirus.
One of the most important measures is to wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds.
As the health site explains, you should use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.
Other key tips include:
- Wash your hands as soon as you get back home
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze
- Put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards
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