Each season has its ways of contributing to the various components and causative agents of Dry Eye. Dry eye is an intricate disease process with several roads that ultimately lead to some form of irritation, burning, stinging, redness, and/or blurry vision. The cold winter months bring a lot of unwelcome changes to your body and overall health. Coughs, runny noses, cold sores, and dry skin are just a few changes that let us know we have settled into the winter season. The cold winds and the dry heat blasting inside ensure your eyes know it’s winter too.
Our eyes need humidity to stay lubricated. The radiating heat in our homes and workplaces will often cause the humidity to drop well below 40 percent. Those low humidity levels cause the tears to evaporate from the front surface of the eyes. Using a humidifier can certainly improve these conditions and help keep your tear film stable for longer periods of time. With the dry air causing the tear film to evaporate at a greater rate, it is important to remember to stay hydrated. Attention to fluid intake and adding foods that are fluid-based (fruit and vegetables) to your diet can help maintain proper hydration of the surface of the eyes. Over-the-counter artificial tears can also help supplement the tear film during periods of dry air and low humidity.
The dry air of winter causes inflammation to the tear glands, reducing delivery and altering the makeup of the tears. When the tears’ path to the front surface of the eye becomes obstructed in any way, the unstable tear film that results can lead to increased evaporation, inflammation of the ocular surface and symptoms of eye irritation. Exercises in lid hygiene can assist in keeping the tear glands open and producing tears of an appropriate quality and quantity to reduce your dry eye symptoms. Studies indicate that Omega-3’s can serve to reduce the inflammation of the tear glands. Make sure your diet is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids or introduce an oral supplement to help maintain healthy levels.
Excess tearing is often misunderstood. Ironically, excess tearing can often times be a result of dry eye. If the makeup of the tear film has been altered or the glands are not producing enough tears, the eyes can respond with reflexive or reactive tearing. These tears are your “crying tears” and don’t provide oxygen or nutrients to the eyes, defend against infection, or assist in removing bacteria. If your eyes are suddenly watering more than usual, consider your environment. Skiing, snowboarding, and other outdoor winter activities will expose the eyes to the cold, blowing air. Proper eyewear, specifically something with a wrap design, is advised in these conditions. If you notice your symptoms most when you’re in your car, make sure to direct the heat to the feet vents and utilize the heated seats when available.
It is common to want to avoid travel and extra appointments when temperatures are frequently dipping below zero and roads are maintaining a layer of some combination of snow, slush, and ice, but winter might be a good time to visit your eye doctor. Take action against your nagging dry eye symptoms before spring arrives and opens a new door of mechanisms causing itchy, gritty, dry eyes.
Jared Most, OD