This summer, smoke from wildfires in the western U.S. has traveled many miles, spreading over much of the country. Even people who live far away from the conflagrations are reporting eye discomfort.
Ophthalmologists say that anyone can suffer eye irritation from this smoke, but it is especially bothersome for patients who have dry eye syndrome, when the eyes can’t produce the amount and quality of tears to keep our eyes adequately lubricated. Symptoms include:
Discomfort and blurred vision aren’t the only problems that result from dry eye. Johns Hopkins University ophthalmologists say the condition can make it harder to complete everyday tasks, can reduce driving safety at night—and they conducted a study showing it can slow our reading speed by 10%!
Dry eye can be caused by the side effects of medications we take; by eyelid disorders; and by certain health conditions, such as allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and thyroid disease. Dry eye is most common among people older than 50.
Treatment and prevention of dry eye
Treatment is available for dry eye disease, so don’t delay reporting symptoms. Your eye care specialist may recommend special eye drops and other over-the-counter or prescription medications. In some cases, surgery is recommended, most commonly the insertion of tiny plugs into the tear ducts to keep tears in the eye longer. Other treatments are available, depending on the underlying cause of the condition.
How and where we spend our time can also make a difference. Staring at a digital device all day irritates the eyes. We blink less often when reading from a computer screen or smartphone, and we tend to open our eyes wider. Not only smoke, but also air pollution and indoor dust worsen the condition. And though air conditioning can filter out a lot of pollution in the air, it also removes humidity from our homes and offices, drying out our eyes faster.
The winter months can be just as bad, indoors and out. “On average, the humidity drops in the winter with the colder weather,” explains Dr. Marissa K. Locy, O.D., an instructor at the University of Alabama Birmingham Department of Ophthalmology. “In addition, most people turn on the heat in their homes or offices to combat the cold. So, what you end up having is lower humidity outside, and even lower humidity inside, making for warm, dry conditions where moisture can evaporate from the eye faster than normal.” Dr. Locy recommends using a humidifier to add some moisture back into the air.
Here are other lifestyle tips for managing dry eye:
Quit smoking. Smoke irritates our eyes and worsens most eye conditions. Even if you don’t smoke, stay away from places where others are lighting up.
Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated helps maintain moisture in the eyes.
Limit screen time and take breaks. Staring at a computer or smartphone for hours on end strains the eyes. Experts also suggest positioning your screen below eye level so you need not open your eyes as wide.
Wear wraparound sunglasses outdoors. This will not only protect your eyes from smoke and pollution, but also block wind and dry air.
Avoid letting air blow into your eyes. Position heat and air conditioner vents, fans and hair dryers away from your face.
Untreated, dry eye can cause permanent damage to our eyes and eyesight. So report symptoms to your doctor promptly. A simple exam is usually enough to let your doctor diagnose the condition and recommend treatment that’s right for you.