Winter dry eyes

Should you see your eye doctor this winter? You’re getting warmer

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The Year of the Eye Exam, #2020EyeExam, kicked off with a chilly start. While walking in a winter wonderland can be festive and fun, the harsh, cold weather can lead to an avalanche of aggravations. That's why it's essential to see your AOA doctor of optometry for a comprehensive eye examination.

Cold air and dry eyes


With lower humidity in the air in winter, the cold air blowing on your face can take a toll on the eyes. A cold wind can cause moisture in the eye to evaporate.

Frequent lubrication with artificial tears helps alleviate the dryness, inside and outside, says Daniel Bintz, O.D. Dr. Bintz also recommends eyelid scrubs for nearly 100% of his patients, either as a treatment or a preventive procedure. "A reasonable treatment most people feel they can perform daily are lid scrubs with a warm washcloth wrapped around a finger and aimed at the baseline of lashes with eyes closed for about 20 seconds," he says. "This helps stimulate blood flow where the glands produce oil for the tear film."

The cold air also can make the eyes tear up, says Amber Gatti Dunn, O.D. "A way to help with that is to put in artificial tears prior to going outside to create a small 'barrier,'" Dr. Dunn says. "I especially recommend preservative-free artificial tears because then they can be used with contact lenses."

Hot air and contact lenses

Chicago is no stranger to cold winters. "My patients know what life gets like during the cold winters of Chicago and taking that extra step to protect their eye health and vision is important," says Pamela Lowe, O.D., chair of the AOA Contact Lens & Cornea Section.

"Contact lens wearers do need to protect the eye surface from wind and extreme cold to keep their contacts comfortable and clear," Dr. Lowe adds.

But it's not only the outside environment that can irritate the eye, says Renee Reeder, O.D., chair of clinical education at the University of Pikesville Kentucky College of Optometry. Indoors can be challenging, too, with hot air from vents in cars, homes or workplaces blowing directly into eyes.

"Patients' lenses may feel drier, scratchier and their vision may even fluctuate as the lenses dry out in the warmer environment," says Dr. Reeder, noting that humidifiers can raise the humidity to 50% and improve comfort.

"At work, the combination of a dry eye environment and the reduced blinking while on devices can further exacerbate contact lens discomfort and vision instability," she says.

Dr. Reeder offers patients some solutions for caring for their eyes in dry environments.

"A desktop humidifier and more frequent application of rewetting drops can help," she says. "One of the most challenging environments is the car, especially on long commutes when the defroster and heat are running. The hot, dry air blows right into your eyes, drying out your contact lenses. In extreme situations, vision declines and lenses have been known to pop off. Consider using a small, USB-powered humidifier. There are humidifier designs made to fit in the car cup holder and others that go inside a standard 16.9 oz bottle of water. Managing the dry environment can keep you loving your lenses throughout the winter months."

Learn about contact lens care.

UV protection

Wearing protection is key, says Rodolfo Rodriguez, O.D. For instance, Dr. Rodriguez recommends patients wear goggles for safety whether they are doing chores around their homes (shoveling) or playing winter sports (skiing).

"I have seen severe eye injuries that have resulted in permanent loss of vision caused by the patient punching their own eye while shoveling snow." Dr. Rodolfo says.  "I have also seen eye injuries caused by patients setting up seasonable decorations outdoors as well as indoors."

All the doctors of optometry recommend wearing sunglasses and hats as protection from ultraviolet rays.

"Bright winter days with a snow cover are even more detrimental because of the increased UV exposure due to reflection of light off the snow surface," Dr. Lowe says.

Adds Dr. Rodriguez: "Most patients think of sunglasses for summer wear. However, it is important to remind patients to wear sunglasses that provide UV-A or UV-B ray protection even during the winter since harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can reach the eyes even on cloudy winter days. Snow can reflect 80% of sunlight. Sun glare from snow can lead to photokeratitis (snow blindness), a painful condition where the cornea is affected by overexposure to UV light and symptoms can last several days."

Some other tips from doctors of optometry:

  • Drinking water is essential for overall health and helps to keep the eyes moist.
  • Don't touch your eyes without first washing your hands, in order to prevent such highly contagious diseases as conjunctivitis.
  • See your doctor of optometry for a comprehensive eye examination, as the wintry conditions can aggravate dry eye disease.

What can an eye exam do for you?

An in-person, comprehensive eye exam with a doctor of optometry is the simplest step you can take to protect vision and ensure early diagnosis of and treatment for common vision problems. An eye exam also safeguards overall health by enabling doctors to detect more than 270 serious health conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases and cancers before they produce symptoms.

To find an AOA doctor near you, visit aoa.org/doctor-locator.

February 21, 2020

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