A recent article in the New York Post suggested that wearing glasses might offer some degree of protection against respiratory viruses. We’ve also read in quite a few places comments about wearing eye protection as a possible respiratory virus prevention suggestion. Is it likely to work? While we’d like to be able to give you a definitive answer, unfortunately, there’s no evidence we can find that would support or disprove this suggestion.
Let’s start by understanding why it sounds like wearing eye protection would work. We get infected by respiratory viruses when they come into contact with the mucosal areas of the face (e.g., nose, mouth, eyes). This can occur when the virus is airborne after someone coughs or sneezes. And it can happen by touching surfaces contaminated with viruses and then touching our mouth, nose, or eyes. Having something that protects the eyes seems like it could be helpful in both of these types of transmission.
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH; part of the CDC) recommends eye protection for a variety of potential occupational exposure settings where workers may be at risk of acquiring infectious diseases via ocular (eye) exposure. The general idea is that this might block some virus from getting to your eyes, because it would be blocked by the eye protection. But by eye protection, NIOSH means goggles and face shields, often worn in combination with masks or respirators. They don’t mean wearing eyeglasses (e.g., corrective lenses, sunglasses).
We think it’s unlikely that routinely wearing eyeglasses would offer much in the way of protection from respiratory viruses. This is because, as we discussed in Neurohacker’s Guide to Hand Washing as an Antiviral Strategy, most of us touch our mouth, nose, and eyes many times an hour without realizing it. People wearing eyeglasses are not immune from this subconscious facial touching.
Let’s assume the eyeglasses were successful in blocking viruses from a cough or sneeze from contacting your eyes. What are the chances you’d touch the glasses without being aware of it and then touch other surfaces or areas of your face before cleaning the glasses properly? Depending on your answer, this could use up some or all of the theoretical benefits.
What about eyeglasses stopping someone from touching their eyes. Most glasses are not tightly fitting enough to do this. Without thinking about it, the people who frequently wear glasses touch their eyes by reaching around their glasses. Recently I’ve asked a few people to wear glasses and pay attention to touching their eyes. They all commented that they still found themselves touching their eyes. And while wearing glasses might be a deterrent initially, since facial touching is a subconscious habit, we think it’s very likely that any eye touching deterrent benefit would go away with routine wearing of glasses.
In full disclosure, I wore glasses when flying across the country recently. I don’t wear glasses all the time (I use blue blockers situationally) so I selected the pair which fit the most snugly to wear while at the airport and during my flight. Did they help? It’s impossible to know. They did stop me from touching my eyes many times during the flight. Did my subconscious still find a way to sneak some touches past me? Quite possibly. And would it have figured out how to sneak more touches past me if I wore this particular pair of glasses routinely? My guess is yes. But one of the positives was that it made feel better about my trip. And there just might have been more benefit from that than anything else the glasses physically did.
So the bottom line is that I wouldn’t expect much if any protection. But I also can’t think of any downside. And, I opted to intentionally wear a specific pair of glasses when I knew I’d be more likely to come in contact with airborne viruses and have less access to washing my hands. I’d make the same choice again.