Why not neglect eye care during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, access to eye care has continued to evolve. Lockdowns and worries about exposure to the virus have caused people of all ages to cancel and delay routine appointments, raising red flags among eye care professionals. As the pandemic continues into its second year, can eye health be overlooked any longer?

Our team of optometrists and clinical scientists at the Center for Ocular Research & Education (CORE) hears the confusion and concerns about people’s eyes during COVID-19. Answering the most common questions — most of which we keep up to date on COVIDeyefacts.org — can help you and your family maintain the best vision while staying safe.

Can I set aside my eye health?

A survey commissioned by Fight for Sight, a UK eye research charity, finds that one in five adults in the UK are less likely to visit an eye doctor during the pandemic. This despite the finding that a third of adults have reported worsening eyesight since the start of the pandemic.

Thousands of patients who previously sought regular treatment for sight-threatening chronic eye conditions are missing vital appointments that help preserve their vision.

Ophthalmologists report that patients with retinal conditions such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are skipping hospital appointments for sight-saving injections, often resulting in devastating consequences such as disease progression , resulting in significant vision loss.

What eye conditions can’t wait?

COVID-19 concerns aside, there are seven reasons to call your eye doctor urgently, regardless of the patient’s age:

  • eye injury

  • eye pain

  • If you notice new floaters or flashes of light

  • Red eyes

  • A sudden change of vision

  • Empty or wavy spots

  • Prescription Drop Refills

Delaying care in these situations can lead to poor outcomes, including vision loss. Some clinics offer telephone consultations to triage care and discuss options. If in doubt, call.

Infographic summarizing seven reasons to contact your ophthalmologist urgently.
(Alison Ng/CORE, University of Waterloo), Author provided

Have eye exams changed?

As with all aspects of our lives, significant changes have been made to the way eye care professionals and clinics operate, putting safety first. You will see spaced appointments and physical distancing, staff and doctors using protective equipment, modifications to some tests, ventilation arrangements and more – with the same commitment to patient health.

Infographic summarizing 7 key things to expect during an eye exam during the COVID-19 pandemic
Eye care professionals have safety measures in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here’s what to expect during an eye exam during the pandemic.
(Alison Ng/CORE, University of Waterloo), Author provided

Do I really need to take an exam?

When your eye doctor shines those bright lights into your eyes, they’re looking for signs that could indicate painless, progressive diseases that may not be apparent.

For example, glaucoma affects the optic nerve, causing progressive and irreversible vision loss. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and over 80% of those affected experience silent vision loss. Often, patients with glaucoma do not notice any symptoms until 40% of nerve damage has occurred. Early detection and prompt treatment limit further damage.

Ophthalmologist wearing face mask, glasses and gloves, performing eye exam with patient.
An ophthalmologist examining a patient’s eyes. The ophthalmologist wears personal protective equipment including a face mask, goggles and gloves. There is a plastic breathing screen between the ophthalmologist and the patient, and the patient also wears a face mask.
(CORE, University of Waterloo), Author provided

Can I trust online sources for care information?

Let’s say you wake up with red eyes. Dr. Google will probably tell you that you have conjunctivitis, or pink eye, a simple eye infection that goes away without consequences. However, increased eye redness is not only caused by pink eye. This is called a “differential diagnosis” or “what else could it be?”

For example, inflammation of the iris also presents as a red eye. Without prompt treatment involving prescription eye drops, this condition progresses to worsening pain, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, and can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, or permanent vision loss. The only way to confirm the cause of an eye problem and get proper treatment is to see an eye care professional.

And the children?

With estimates that half the world’s population will be nearsighted (myopic) by 2050 and the time children spend on screens skyrocketing, the impact on their vision could linger long after this pandemic is over.

A CORE study found that nearly one-third of Canadian school children aged 11 to 13 were nearsighted, and 35% of nearsighted children did not have glasses or contact lenses to help them see better. Some children just don’t know they have an eye problem because they assume everyone sees the same thing.

Is it safe to have an eye exam?

Every effort is made to ensure the safety of staff, doctors and patients. Clinic staff should stay home and self-isolate if showing symptoms of COVID-19 in the same way as patients.

In this time of continued uncertainty, one thing remains clear: your vision matters and you can take steps to keep it that way, even during a pandemic.