Eyes and Our Environment

We often think of summer, with its warm temperatures and powerful sunshine, as the most important time to protect our eyes— but that is not the only time we are at risk. Our environment has a big impact on our eye health and every season brings new challenges. Winter produces extreme conditions, including frigid temps, whipping winds, dry air, and bright snow glare. Below are some of the most common eye health concerns that people face in the winter and some easy solutions for relief.

What Causes Winter Eye Irritation

Eye irritation and environmental dangers can happen any time during the year, but they can become particularly heightened when you’re exposed to extreme elements. When you participate in winter activities and sports you expose yourself to harsh winter conditions. For instance, snowboarding, skiing, sledding, and snowball fights, are all seasonal activities many people of all ages enjoy during the wintertime. But, you don’t have to be a winter sports enthusiast to experience challenges in winter weather. Even regular, daily activities like blasting the heat in your car or just walking in the whipping wind can put you at risk.

How Winter Weather Impacts Our Eyes

Whether you’re a winter sport warrior or just a chilly northerner trying to make it to spring, protecting your eyes during the winter doesn’t have to be a burden. Below are some common conditions and tips for managing these winter eye challenges.

Dry Eye: While people may experience different symptoms caused by dry eye, the most common symptom is a scratchy sensation or the feeling that something is in your eye. Other symptoms may include stinging or burning, excess tearing that follows dryness periods, discharge, pain, and redness in the eye, in addition to the feeling of heavy eyelids and blurred vision. While some of these symptoms are more serious than others, and may warrant a visit to your doctor, there are several ways you can generally prevent or reduce the discomfort of dry eye caused by winter weather.

According to the American Optometric Association, some of the most basic ways to reduce dry eye are by blinking regularly, increasing the humidity in the air with a humidifier, drinking plenty of fluids, and avoiding heating vents and fans directed at your face. When you’re outside, wearing hats and sunglasses, even in the winter, can be another easy way to limit exposure. There are also some slightly more proactive ways to increase tear production, including eye drops and omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplements.

Watery Eyes: Watery eyes may sound like an opposite and unrelated problem to dry eyes, but it is actually connected to the same root cause. When cold air causes evaporation, dryness, and that “gritty” feeling in your eyes, your brain can respond to the sensation by triggering your tear glands to produce more water and flush them out.

However, just because your eyes appear to be misty, doesn’t mean they are producing the right kind of tears. Experts say sometimes your eye glands can actually create too many watery tears, and not enough oily tears. This lack of oily tears can cause your eyes to dry out between blinks, and therefore produce more watery tears that keep flowing. Experts say the best way to treat watery eyes is similar to treating dry eyes – keep your eyes protected and your body hydrated.

UV Radiation: Most of us remember to grab our favorite pair of sunglasses in the summer when we’re heading off to the beach, but we often forget about sunglasses in the cold winter months. However, the bright winter sun reflecting off the snow can cause very harsh UV exposure. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, bright sun— regardless of the season— can cause damage to the front surface of the eye and may increase the risk of developing cataracts, snow blindness, and growths on the eye, including cancer.

It’s important to remember that even on cloudy days, UV radiation can be high. UV radiation is at its peak during the midday sun. Doctors say the best way to protect your eyes is to wear goggles or sunglasses with UV protection, not only when participating in winter activities but even when you are driving or are exposed to bright sun reflecting off of the snow.

Taking small steps to protect your eyes during the harsh winter months can go a long way to preventing discomfort or long-term damage caused by dry eye and UV radiation. However, for those already diagnosed with eye conditions such as keratoconus, many of these symptoms may be amplified by their underlying vision challenges. Be sure to speak with a doctor if lifestyle changes are ineffective at improving your symptoms.

Focus on your eye health year-round and share your best tips for managing winter eye symptoms with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #LivingWithKC.