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Winter Woes: Dryness & UV Damage

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Winter is fast approaching and there are two very common ocular problems associated with this time of year: Dry air conditions and UV damage.
Eye Health Problem #1: Dry Eye
The most common complaint during the winter months is that of dryness and ocular discomfort. One of the major complaints that my patients report during these months is “my eyes water like crazy” or “my eyes are constantly burning and itching”. Some even complain of a “sandy feeling” or a foreign body sensation in the eye. A major cause of these complaints may be the lower humidity levels inside your home or work place; when the heat is on and the windows are shut, the air indoors can often dry out quite considerably. Spending time outside on windy winter days can have a similar effect.
On top of the winter weather, there a number of other factors can further exacerbate dry eye. Contact lenses, antihistamines, or even being a peri- /post-menopausal woman can be a major contributor to dryness. I find many of my patients with the common complaint of excessively watering eyes too. The excessive tearing comes from the body’s natural reflex to an irritant. The eyes are irritated from being dry, and excessively water to compensate. The issue is, the reflex tears being produced are inconsistent with a normal tear film composition, and don’t stay on the eyes like they should. They then water down the face, and can often cause discomfort around the eyes or in the corner of the eyes when the skin dries out.
What can I do to help with this dryness?
-Moisten your eyes. Use a humidifier at home or work to keep the ambient air less dry.
-Use Artificial Tears. A good quality artificial tear can help rebalance the tear film on the eyes. Do you use lotion to keep your skin from drying out in the winter? It’s the same concept, just a different area of the body exposed to the same environmental elements. Ask your Doctor of Optometry which artificial tear is the best for your type of dry eye.
-Wear eye protection. When outside, do what you can to shield your eyes from the elements. Wear sunglasses outside to help protect the eyes from the wind
Eye Health Problem #2: UV Exposure
It is a common misconception that sunglasses are meant just for the summer months. In fact, the ocular damaging effects due to UV is just as great during the winter months as the summer. Fresh snow can reflect up to 80% of the harmful UV rays back up to our eyes if one isn’t wearing protection!
When you spend several hours outside skiing, skating, tobogganing, or shoveling snow you are at a greater risk of UV exposure. Harmful UV rays can potentially cause damage to your cornea, intra ocular lens or even permanent damage to your retina.
What Can I do to Protect My Eyes?
-Shield them. Wear sunglasses that protect your eyes. Look for sunglasses with “UV 400”, “100% UV protection, or “UVA & UVB Protection” listed on them. If you already wear glasses, get a prescription pair of sunglasses, or wear contacts with non-prescription sunglasses overtop.
-Limit time Outdoors. If you have forgotten your sunglasses at home, don’t spend more than a few hours outdoors without protection. Even on overcast days protect yourself (UV still makes it through the clouds). Remember cataracts are the result of a lifetime of cumulative sun damage; make sure all children are wearing sun protection outdoors too.
Winter can be a time of ocular distress, but with the right care and precautions, you can be comfortable during these cold months. Take pleasure in your time outdoors, bundle up and enjoy the winter wonderland!

Written by
Dr. Wes McCann

Dr. McCann earned his two Bachelor of Science degrees (both with honours) at Western University in London, Ontario, before going on to earn his Bachelor of Vision Science, accelerated MBA, and Doctor of Optometry degrees at the Nova Southeastern University (NSU) of Optometry in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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