Answers provided by Dr. Mitchell Gossman, M.D., ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota, St. Cloud
Can COVID affect the eyes?
Yes, but usually not for the reasons you might think.
COVID-19 is a new virus which humanity has not been exposed to in the past, and that’s the reason that it’s spreading so quickly: No one has antibodies to this virus since it’s different from other viruses of this type (Coronaviruses) that no one has antibodies against until you’re infected by it. You can have immunity against viruses by being infected (natural immunity), or receiving a vaccine which causes your body to generate antibodies against a future infection.
Since the virus is new, it’s taken some time for physicians and scientists to learn the different ways it can affect the body. The most serious problems have been with lung infections, particularly in patients with pre-existing illness such as emphysema, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and it can be fatal.
The virus can affect the eye in many ways; in fact, one in 10 COVID patients have eye involvement, usually mild symptoms such as conjunctivitis (pinkeye), dry eyes and redness. There have been case reports of more serious disease, such as inflammation of the optic nerve which can cause loss of vision, and inflammation of the nerves that move the eyes, with resulting double vision, but these issues are rare.
What is not rare is an unfortunate side effect of fear of acquiring the virus by going out into the world, including for doctor appointments. Ophthalmologists worldwide have observed that during the early months of the pandemic with “shutdowns” of physician offices for all but significant emergencies, patients have been ignoring symptoms and not being seen. As things were relaxed in 2020, but before vaccines were available, many patients have not made appointments for evaluation out of fear of being infected. Even now, with vaccines readily available, there is fear of the COVID variants, and some refuse to be vaccinated out of fear of problems with the vaccination itself. Many patients have had serious conditions untreated, such as heart attacks, strokes, and tumor, with devastating results, including death.
In the world of eye health, patients have been deferring office visits for routine eye care, and even deferred evaluation of problems which under normal circumstances would prompt more timely evaluations. Two of the more common conditions which can cause permanent loss of vision, if evaluation of problems or even routine visits is deferred, are macular degeneration and glaucoma. Macular degeneration often requires periodic treatment, particularly for the “wet macular degeneration” form, and deferred treatment makes for worse vision outcomes. Delayed evaluation and follow-up of glaucoma can result in loss of vision that is permanent.
If you’re afraid of the potential complications of vaccination, consider that almost all experts agree that the risk from an actual infection from COVID-19 is greater than the risk of vaccination. It is true that we won’t for many years know the entire range of late complications of vaccination, but we also don’t know the long-term complications of the actual COVID-19 infection.
I recommend getting the vaccine and resuming normal health care maintenance.
Find Out More
Dr. Mitchell Gossman is a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota. The office is located at 628 Roosevelt Road, Suite 101, in St. Cloud. To make an appointment or to learn more, call 320-774-3789 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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