Seeing More Freely

Enhancing tear production can help ease the irritation of winter dry eye.

by Beverly Burmeier

November/December 2013

You know the cold blast that hits your face when the car defroster is on? That’s an example of what can cause the dry eyes many people experience during the winter, says ophthalmologist Michael Azar, MD, of East Suburban Ophthalmic Associates in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Both cold outside air and the dry, heated indoor variety can cause irritation.

“The flow of forced air and low humidity in winter enhances evaporation of the tear film in eyes,” Azar explains. “When the thin layer of tear film covering eyes is disturbed, our eyes are no longer properly lubricated.” As a result, you may experience blurry vision and burning or tired eyes. Your eyes may even water more in an attempt to compensate for the dryness.

“It’s particularly noticeable in patients who are already experiencing dry eye symptoms and in those who wear contact lenses or have chronic allergies, “adds Mark Ewald, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute in Nashville, Tennessee.

Allergy-affected eyes are usually itchy. “If blinking helps relieve irritation, it’s probably not an allergy,” adds Fraser Horn, OD, associate dean of academic programs in the College of Optometry at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Getting older increases the risk of dry eye.

Keep eyes healthy during the winter by maintaining moisture. Drinks with caffeine can dehydrate, so be sure to consume enough water. (If your mouth is dry your eyes are, too.) Use a humidifier in your home and workplace.

Apply warm compresses for five minutes two times a day to soothe irritation. Gently wash your eyelids to ease any sticky feeling.

Over-the-counter artificial tears can supplement tear production. Look for solutions that are preservative-free and without chemicals intended to reduce eye redness. Horn says a better way to combat redness, if needed, is to put artificial tear drops in the fridge because cold has the same effect.

The sun’s rays may be less intense during winter but reflections on snow, ice and even the windshield of your car can intensify glare. Sunglasses that cover eyes well and block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Lenses with an ultraviolet coating can help prevent dryness by providing a barrier to outside air.

Polarized lenses reduce glare while driving; mirror-coated lenses are good for skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding or hiking. (When driving, aim the car vent toward the floor.) Take protection a step further by wearing goggles with UV protection and a coating meant to protect against ultraviolet keratitis (snow blindness), which can cause painful cornea damage.

Remember to blink often, especially when reading or working at the computer. This redistributes the tear film over your eyes, which improves vision, comfort and lubrication.
“Give your eyes a break and remove contact lenses in the evening,” suggests Azar. “That piece of plastic interrupts tear flow and keeps oxygen from reaching your eyes.”

No matter what the season, a balanced diet is good for eyes. Eating oily fish at least once a week may improve oil gland production in the eyes and reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a condition that destroys the central part of the retina and is the main cause of poor vision among adults in developed nations.

In fact, fish oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, combined with another healthy fat called gamma-linolenic acid as well as vitamins C and E helped ease symptoms and reduce inflammation among 38 women with dry eye, as reported in the journal Cornea (10/13).

Vitamins C and E, as well as the minerals zinc and selenium, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, support a system of antioxidant enzymes within the retina that help protect it against the blue light found in sun glare. The antioxidants found in bilberry (a European cousin of the blueberry) and grape seed extract also help protect the eyes, as do vitamin A and an antioxidant carotenoid from marine sources called astaxanthin.

Vigorous exercise, even in winter, helps fend off eye disease. And get enough sleep: Rest helps eyes recover from stress during waking hours.

If home efforts to deal with dry eye don’t help, or if you have a condition that affects tear production, seek professional advice.

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