Many of us have been spending vast amounts of time indoors these past months, perhaps with the heating on, and staring at screens (big and small) for most of the day and evening. Both of these factors are thought to be leading causes of Dry Eye Syndrome, cases of which have been soaring during the pandemic, eye doctors say.
According to a study shared (opens in new tab) by the National Eye Institute, over 16 million Americans are thought to suffer from Dry Eye Disease, which causes stingy, itchy, red and tired eyes. Now, these symptoms could also suggest digital eye strain (opens in new tab), another uncomfortable eye condition doing the rounds due to the sheer amount of time we’ve all spent eyeballing one screen or another.
So what is Dry Eye Syndrome and what symptoms do we need to watch out for? Dr Andy Hepworth, an Optical Specialist at lens manufacturer Essilor (opens in new tab) explains that, “While Dry Eye is a fairly common eye condition, new research has shown that cases have soared in the past 12 months, much to do with lifestyle changes.
“Symptoms are varied, but most people experience a scratchy, gritty feeling that they just can’t shift.” Other symptoms that Dr Hepworth highlights include:
- Redness and puffiness
- Fatigued eyes that don’t want to open, even when they’ve had enough sleep
- Blurred vision
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Sometimes excessive watering
There are more severe Dry Eye Syndrome symptoms too, including “photophobia (light intolerance), eye pain and deterioration in vision.”
Dr Hepworth goes on to explain that Dry Eye Disease happens when your eyes don’t produce enough lubricant or tears to keep them moist, and even wearing the best contact lenses online (opens in new tab) with a high moisture content aren’t enough to save you from it completely.
“It is this lack of lubrication which makes your eyes feel gritty and irritated. Its medical name is Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS)."
What is the link between Dry Eye Syndrome and digital screen use?
By now, most of us know that staring at our home computer (opens in new tab) screen for hours on end without a break spells trouble for our eyes, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that excessive screen time without breaks is a big no-no.
Dr Hepworth explains: “A very common reason for this [Dry Eye] occurring is excessive screen time or not giving your eyes regular breaks – and you only have to look at some of the figures to see how our eyes are taking the strain of ‘virtual living’.
“Prolonged exposure to air conditioning or heating, or wearing contacts for long periods and as a side effect of some medications are other known causes of Dry Eye. It can also be down to hormone imbalances,” Dr Hepworth continues. “Women going through perimenopause and menopause may also notice their eyes becoming dryer, as it can be linked to hormonal changes due to levels of oestrogen decreasing.”
Ok, we get the message. So is Dry Eye Syndrome serious?
While both sore and irritating, sporadic bouts of dry eyes isn’t something to panic about. You can treat it at home with lubricating eye drops to get relief from the itchy, uncomfortable feeling. But if you are regularly experiencing eye soreness, discomfort and itching, it’s time to make an appointment with your eye doctor.
“If your eyes have been dry and irritated for prolonged periods of time then you should visit your optician for an eye test to make sure that there are no other underlying problems.” Dr Hepworth advises. “An optician can test for Dry Eye with a fluorescein dye which allows them to measure the time it takes for the dye to start drying.
“The risk of developing Dry Eye Syndrome can also increase chances of other complications such as inflammation of the cornea and conjunctivitis, so it is advisable to visit an optician regularly.”
How to avoid getting dry eyes in the first place
As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure, so it’s down to you to ensure you’re taking regular screen breaks and prioritizing your eye health. This is important regardless of whether you have no sight issues, or whether you rely on the best eyeglasses online (opens in new tab) to correct your vision.
“If screen time is the issue, then reducing this or wearing glasses with lenses that support the eye’s focussing effort when using digital devices can help to reduce the discomfort that occurs from too much time in front of the computer.”
Wearing such lenses helps to support your eyes from overworking when you’re staring at your laptop (opens in new tab) or handset screen for hours on end, and you don’t need a prescription to wear them either. Here are some other tips from Dr Hepworth to avoid getting Dry Eye Syndrome, starting with taking regular screen breaks:
- Resting your eyes every 20 minutes and even stepping away from your computer and going outside to give them a proper break will help.
- Simple eye exercises can help reduce Dry Eye. Try alternating between lightly closing your eyes and then forcing them to shut with strength. Do this about 20 times a day to increase your blinking, which automatically produces tears in your eyes.
- If you are a lens wearer, make sure that you don’t wear them for longer than recommended and give your eyes a break by wearing glasses on some occasions.
- Speak to your optician if you have any concerns, and keep up to date with your eye examinations.
For more eye health content, also take a look at our guide to the best vision insurance, and our feature on can you sleep with contacts in (opens in new tab).