More than Santa arrives in December. So, does Old Man Winter on Dec. 21, bringing bitterly wintry blasts to nip at our faces and eyes.
Because doctors of optometry know that eye care and vision health never take a holiday, we asked a few of them to share some tips they give their patients on eye care under the current seasonal conditions:
Cold air and dry eyes
With lower humidity in the air in winter, that cold air blowing on our faces can take a toll on the eyes in the winter. A cold wind can cause the moisture in the eye to evaporate.
"Elk City is in western Oklahoma—it's one of those places where you notice when the wind isn't blowing," says Daniel Bintz, O.D., noting that Oklahoma is among the top states in the country for wind power generation. "Our humidity is generally low, especially in the winter. The cold wind seems to irritate eyes more than warm and hot wind. Many people here work outside and spend leisure time outside even in the winter."
Frequent lubrication with artificial tears helps alleviate the dryness, inside and outside, Dr. Bintz says. He 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 can also make the eyes tear up. says Amber Gatti Dunn, O.D., who practices in Oregon.
"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 not a stranger to cold winters, "My patients know what life gets like during the cold winters of Chicago and that taking extra steps 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, whether it's hot air from vents in cars, homes or workplaces that is blowing directly into eyes.
"Patients' lenses may feel drier, scratchier and their vision may even fluctuate as the lenses dry out in the warner environment," says Dr. Reeder, noting that humidifiers can raise 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."
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Wearing protection is key, says Rodolfo Rodriguez, O.D., New Jersey. 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 spoke of 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 rays 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, since the wintry conditions can aggravate dry eye disease.
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