Winter brings some of the most popular holidays of the year, but the season also comes with extreme temperatures and precipitation. Whether you love the season for its festivities or hate the season for its weather, you have to take steps to protect yourself from the potential hazards of winter conditions.
While you probably remember to drive more carefully and bundle up before going outside, you may overlook the seasonal threats to your eye health. These hazards often seem less obvious than an icy road or freezing morning, but eye health issues can be just as dangerous.
Cold outdoor air and heated indoor air often have less moisture in them than other environments. In the winter, you may experience dry skin, chapped lips, and dry eyes due to this low humidity. Cold winter winds may also dry your eyes out. To minimize the drying ability of winter air, keep yourself hydrated and increase your intake of omega-3s. You may also want to run a humidifier in your home to improve the quality of your indoor air.
- EXCESS TEARING
While some people experience a lack of tears in the winter, others have the opposite problem. Excess tearing and runny eyes can occur due to cold air, biting winds, or seasonal allergies. Pay attention to when your eyes tear up to determine the cause.
If your eyes start to water when you step outside or when the wind blows your way, wear sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes. If you experience excess tearing while indoors, try an allergy medication and appropriate eye drops to reduce the effect of seasonal allergies. If you cannot determine the cause of your watery eyes or if over-the-counter treatments have no effect, especially if the wateriness alters your vision, see an optometrist.
- LIGHT SENSITIVITY
Winter skies can seem dark and gloomy, but snowfall and ice create many reflective surfaces that can dramatically increase the amount of light. If you have sensitive eyes, you may experience even more blinking, discomfort, and other symptoms in bright winter light.
Some individuals develop new light sensitivity during winter due to a condition known as “snow blindness,” which we’ll discuss in more detail in section five. Always protect your eyes when going outdoors for long periods of time, including when walking, shoveling snow, or performing other routine activities.
Harsh winter conditions can cause redness, tenderness, and inflammation in the eye area. You may have swollen eyelids or discoloration of your eye itself. You may also notice eyelid spasms or involuntary tics if your eyes become particularly irritated.
This redness could result from dry eye, seasonal allergies, or snow blindness. To reduce the discomfort of inflamed eyes, apply a cool compress like a damp washcloth and take an over-the-counter pain killer. If your symptoms persist, see an eye doctor to determine the cause of the irritation.
When you picture a sunburn, you likely imagine redness and blisters on the skin, but long periods of light exposure can damage your eyes too. Eye sunburn and snow blindness often occur simultaneously. If you notice an increase in your light sensitivity, your eyes may have sustained UV damage, especially if you also experience itchiness or pain.
You are most vulnerable to UV damage when participating in outdoor activities at high elevations. If you enjoy winter sports like skiing and sledding, always wear eye protection. If you experience the symptoms of eye sunburn, see your optometrist. Treatment can decrease your acute discomfort and decrease the risk of long-term complications, including vision loss and macular degeneration.
- VISION CHANGES
While many winter eye health problems result from increased light or decreased moisture, you can also experience eye conditions caused by the cold temperature. Extremely low temperatures cause the blood vessels in and around the eyes to constrict, and this constriction can cause immediate vision changes, such as blurriness and double vision. These changes are most likely to occur when you stay outside for long periods of time in temperatures that are well below freezing.
If you notice vision changes while out in the cold, move to a warm area as soon as possible. If your normal vision doesn’t return after 30 minutes or so, seek medical attention. An optometrist may use medicated eye drops to help the blood vessels in your eye dilate back to their normal size.
If you experience any of the seasonal problems listed above, consult with an eye doctor. While some eye health issues will clear up as the temperatures rise, others may become more uncomfortable and potentially dangerous without medical attention.