Air pollution, no doubt, has had numerous health impacts on humans, but when it comes to air pollution in relation to eyes and vision, there seems to be a gap. This phenomenon has not been studied in depth in the way that perhaps pollution in relation to our pulmonary system has, but there is evidence to suggest that pollution is hurting our eyes.
Our eyes are incredibly exposed and sensitive. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of getting dust or sand in your eyes (which everyone is likely to have experienced at least once), then you know the irritation and discomfort involved. Though pollution is a little sneakier than dust and sand, it can have an equal or worse effect on our eyes in the long run.
A study done in Paris in 2003 found a strong link between urban pollution and a spike in ophthalmological emergencies in the area. Though fewer studies have been done in other parts of the world, reports from Beijing, China and the India Times seem to suggest that vision health is being affected by smog and other forms of air pollution.
Dry Eye Syndrome and Pollution
The most frequently reported vision problem that is most probably linked to air pollution is dry eyes. This is especially common in places like Beijing, where air pollution is found in the form of smog (a combination of smoke and fog). Fog may be harmless enough, but smoke can be incredibly harmful to the eyes.
Though an exact cause as to why pollution causes dry eyes has yet to be found, researchers suggest that it may have to do with the lack of humidity in highly polluted areas. Areas with higher humidity are less likely to suffer from pollution-related dry eyes.
What is Dry Eye Syndrome?
Dry eye syndrome is an eye disease which can be caused by one of two things: either the tear productions in the eyes are low, or the evaporation of the tears is very high. Both these causes result in dry and eventually inflamed eyes.
Eyes need to be hydrated, just like the rest of our bodies. To stay hydrated, our ducts produce tears to moisten the eyeball. If you’re thinking a quick splash of water on the eyes is sure to cure dry eye, then you’ll be surprised to know that tears actually have three layers to them.
Tears are made up of water, oil, and mucus. The water is the moisturizing component, oil works to help keep the water from evaporating too quickly, and the mucus ensures an even coat of moisture across the entire eye. Without all three layers working together, our eyes would constantly be itchy and dry.
Symptoms of Dry Eye Syndrome
Live in an urban area and think you may have dry eye syndrome? Have a look at the following symptoms and see if any of them apply to you.
Symptoms of dry eyes:
- Feeling of dryness
- Stinging or burning sensation in the eye
- Eye soreness
- Stringy mucus both in and around the eye
- Intense sensitivity to wind or smoke (eyes become more watery than normal)
- Eye redness
- Sticky eyelids
- Blurred vision (normally at the end of the day)
- Photophobia (light sensitivity)
General rule of thumb: if two or more symptoms apply to you, give your eye doctor a call and make an appointment!
If left untreated, dry eyes can lead to several complications including loss of vision, worsened photophobia, and pain in the eyes.
How is Dry Eye Syndrome Treated?
Unfortunately for the time being, dry eyes cannot be cured, but numerous methods have been developed to treat them.
The most used treatment for dry eyes is artificial tear drops and/or ointments. Artificial tear drops are generally available over the counter. However, be warned that no one artificial tear drop is the same and will react differently with different people. You may have to play around and find which drop is best for you. As for ointments, they provide thicker moisture, which is best suited for overnight use.
A fairly new medical invention called Lipiflow uses heat and pressure to unblock glands. Once unblocked, these glands begin to produce the much needed oil to keep the eyes hydrated for longer.
A super effective prevention method, which many people overlook, is proper nutrition. Research is beginning to suggest that a daily intake of fish oil and omega-3s may help improve the condition of those with dry eyes.
How to Protect your Eyes
It would be unrealistic to recommend never leaving your house or never going into the city to avoid pollution and potential dry eye. Air pollution is, for the most part, out of your control. However, there are steps you can take to make sure that your eyes are getting the best protection they can get.
The first and easiest thing you can do is to stay hydrated. Your body needs to be hydrated for your eyes to produce the correct amount of tears. Experts suggest about eight glasses of water a day is sufficient.
Next, wear sunglasses! Not only do they make you look like a celebrity, sunglasses are great for providing your eyes with a basic protection from dust, debris, or sand blowing in the wind. Protective goggles are also a viable option.
Another easy way to protect your eyes is to increase the indoor humidity in your home. The air outside may be dry, but that doesn’t mean the air in your home needs to be. This will help your eyes keep moist and has several other health benefits like keeping your sinuses clear!
Living in a world where air pollution is almost everywhere isn’t easy on the body, let alone the eyes. For the time being we have to work towards protecting our eyes from harsh environments. Hopefully someday soon, we’ll have a beautifully clean planet for our eyes to admire.