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Winter Eye Blues: How to Protect your Eyes from the Cold

Prevent winter eye problems

Dry eyes and snow blindness are more common in harsh winter weather

Winter eye care tips by Donald McCormack, M.D.
Boulder Medical Center


Frigid temperatures and seasonal winter weather have finally settled into Boulder County. Along with Colorado’s beautiful winters come the risk that dropping temperatures, harsher winds, and dryer air will negatively impact the health of our eyes. Bright sun, reflective snow, and traveling to higher elevations also present unique challenges. That’s why it’s important to pay special attention to eye health during the colder months.

Here are the most common problems along with tips to help you take good care of your eyes this winter.

Dry eyes in winter

Remember that kids need eye protection too!

Tears are a mixture of water, fatty oils and mucous that provide a protective layer on the surface of our eyes. Although our eyes are constantly producing tears, the tears also naturally evaporate. When this cycle balanced, our eyes function perfectly and feel fine. In winter, however cold air holds less water than warm air, so dry eyes are more common. Wind can increase evaporation too. This is why almost everyone will experience eye irritation on the coldest days for these reasons. Symptoms of dry eyes can include redness, itchiness, burning, stickiness, and a sensation of a foreign body in the eye.

Several measures can help with dry eyes:

  • Purchase over-the-counter artificial tears such as Refresh and Systane. These products supplement our natural tears and can be used as often as six times a day. Some preservative-free varieties can be used even more often. Apply a drop of artificial tears before you head out into the cold and wind to help keep your eyes comfortable;
  • Use humidifiers to improve your indoor environment;
  • When in the home, decrease drafts, avoid fans, and direct heating vents away from your face. These solutions help decrease evaporation that occurs when air moves across the eyes;
  • Avoid cigarette smoke. Smoke can increase eye irritation;
  • Always wear sunglasses or ski goggles when outdoors. Be sure to retain eye moisture when outside, especially when engaging in activities where air moves quickly across your eyes such as snowboarding, skiing, and snowmobiling;
  • Decrease the amount of time you wear contact lenses.  Lenses can wick tears away from your eyes;
  • For chronic or severe dry eyes, ask your ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care. They are trained in a full spectrum of treatments for dry eyes, including the insertion of tear duct plugs. These tiny, biocompatible devices can be easily and painlessly inserted into your eyes to help relieve dry eyes. Read more about dry eye remedies here.

Watery eyes and cold weather

Watering eyes is common as we step outside into colder winter temperatures. When cold air causes more evaporation, our eyes are left with a thinner cushion of tears that protect the sensitive surface cells. This condition can trigger a reflex that tells the lacrimal gland (the eye gland that secretes an aqueous layer of tear film) to produce extra tears. The result is that tears can flood our eyes and spill onto our cheeks.

Because the tearing in this case is actually due to evaporation, treatment for watery eyes is similar to dry eyes.

Snow blindness

Prevent snow blindness by always wearing appropriate eye protection during winter sports.

Photokeratitis is the medical term for snow blindness, which is caused by damage to the surface cells of the cornea from ultraviolet (UV) light. Although we are exposed to UV light all year, reflections from snow intensify this exposure. That’s why photokeratitis is usually seen in winter. The cornea cells have denser nerve endings than anywhere else on your body, making snow blindness extremely painful. The damage, while often temporary, can cause blurry vision. UV light can damage the retina in the back of the eye as well.

The best way to prevent snow blindness is to avoid prolonged UV exposure. All sunglasses and snow goggles sold in the United States are required to have sufficient filters that block both UVA and UVB rays. Wearing adequate protection for snow sports is extremely important.

Treating snow blindness involves rest with eyes closed for 12 to 48 hours. Your ophthalmologist can provide symptomatic and pain relief if needed.

Eyes at altitude

Traveling at higher elevations exposes our eyes to even colder temperatures and less protection from UV light. Hence, dry eyes and the risk of snow blindness increase the higher you go. If you enjoy Colorado mountain activities like skiing, snowboarding, sledding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, taking extra precautions to protect your eyes is vital.


About Donald McCormack, M.D.
Opthalmologist

Dr. McCormack diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, prescribes eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems, and performs a wide range of clinical procedures and more complicated eye surgeries. He has special interests in treatments for dry eyes and glaucoma and has been a principal investigator in numerous clinical research trials for these conditions.

Originally from Ames, Iowa, Dr. McCormack has been with the Boulder Medical Center since 1993. Here is a partial list of the services he provides:

  • Complete eye exams for adults and children
  • Cataract Surgery — standard, toric, and multifocal lenses
  • Glaucoma — medical and laser treatments
  • Diabetes — retinal laser surgery
  • Dry Eyes — medical treatments and punctal plugs
  • Glasses and Contact Lenses

Click here for Dr. McCormack’s full profile

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