Mask-associated dry eyes is a new issue for face mask wearers, so here's how to treat it

Mask-associated dry eyes is a new issue for face mask wearers, so here's how to treat it
(Image credit: Getty)

Wearing a face covering is essential to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and while we firmly believe that everyone who is able should wear one to protect themselves and others, we also know that masks aren’t without their challenges. One of the latest is mask-associated dry eyes (MADE). An estimated 4.88 million Americans aged 50 and over suffer from dry eyes, and researchers have discovered that the number of people reporting dry eyes is trending up during the pandemic.

In a study first published in the Journal Ophthalmology and Therapy, researchers at the University of Utah discovered an increase in both eye irritation and dry eyes in regular mask users. These results included participants who had never suffered from dry eyes in the past, and were prevalent among groups of people who were wearing masks for extended periods, most notably the elderly and those working on the frontline. Typical COVID face coverings can be anything from reusable fabric face masks to medical masks, and homemade face masks.

When wearing a mask, participants in the study described feeling air being pushed up towards their eyes when taking a breath. Researchers concluded that:

  • Increased upward airflow over a prolonged period was likely to evaporate the natural lubrication in the eyes, resulting in irritation. 
  • Other symptoms of mild to moderate dry eyes can include a feeling of soreness in the eyes, redness, inflammation, and temporarily blurred vision. 

As we have covered briefly in our guides to the best contact lenses online and the best eyeglasses online, your choice of everyday eyewear won’t protect you from mask-associated dry eyes. Unless you’re wearing tight-fitting goggles, the eye area remains exposed and vulnerable to this condition. With face masks likely to be required for some time yet to help slow the spread, let’s take a closer look at the causes of mask-associated dry eyes and how you can treat it at home.

What are the causes of mask-associated dry eyes?

Dry eyes happen when your eyes stop making the tears needed to keep them lubricated. This disruption to the production of tears is usually caused by being in hot or windy environments, by hormonal changes, certain medical conditions, or as a side-effect to certain prescription drugs (read our guide to the best Medicare Part D plans if you’re without coverage but eligible).

In mask-associated dry eyes, air that is normally expelled in an outward direction is trapped and pushed upward toward the eyes. The University of Utah researchers stated in their report that this increased airflow, “likely accelerates the evaporation of the tear film which, when continuous for hours or days, may result in ocular surface irritation or inflammation.”

Interestingly, new data emerging out of China’s Hubei province suggests that dry eyes are a complication of coronavirus itself. While this is possible, researchers at the University of Utah believe that rather than being part of the cluster of coronavirus symptoms, it is more likely a side-effect of long-term face mask use in those who go on to develop the illness. Another article proposes that the coronavirus may be more common in those with dry eyes because they are more likely to touch their eyes to reduce discomfort and subsequently infect themselves.

Mask-associated dry eyes is a new issue for face mask wearers, so here's how to treat it

(Image credit: Getty)

Age also plays a role, as you’re more at risk of mask-associated dry eyes if you’re over the age of 65, when tear production naturally begins to decline or have a pre-existing medical condition. Spending lots of time in air-conditioned environments or using digital devices also increases your risk. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the drying effects caused by upward airflow from your mask (keep reading). 

And if you’re covered by the best vision insurance, you could book an appointment with your eye health professional to discuss any concerns. They’ll be able to rule out any other causes for the discomfort you’re experiencing and provide expert guidance and support on the best course of treatment.

How to treat mask-associated dry eyes

The Center for Ocular Research and Education (CORE) has come up with some easy solutions that can help alleviate the symptoms of mask-associated dry eyes:

  • Ensure your mask fits well, particularly if you wear glasses. Choose a close-fitting mask with a snug fit or carefully tape the top edge. This may help direct the airflow in a downward direction and, as a bonus, it will help stop your lenses from fogging.
  • Consider purchasing eye drops to keep the eyes moist. This can help alleviate some of the dryness and the uncomfortable symptoms that can go along with it.
  • Wherever possible, limit the time spent in air-conditioned or windy environments, and take regular breaks away from your computer, smartphone, and other digital devices. 

Whatever you do, continue to wear your face mask. Dr. Lyndon Jones, Director of CORE, explains: “Responsibly wearing a mask, even when having to contend with eye dryness, is a critical part of overcoming the global pandemic. The good news is that we understand MADE and can address it.”

Looking for more health and wellness content? Then take a look at our guide to the best digital thermometers for tracking fever, a major COVID-19 indicator, as well as the best health insurance companies and how adequate coverage could protect you going forward. If you're looking to buy a face mask, these are in stock for home delivery... 

Kathryn Rosenberg

Kathryn is a freelance health and wellness writer who is passionate about the mind-body connection, the role of food as medicine, and exploring how we can live in more sustainable and humane ways. A lover of the natural world, she’s at her happiest when walking the beach, staring out at the ocean, or when sat amongst lakes and mountains. For Top Ten Reviews, Kathryn covers more of our in-depth health content, ranging from diabetes news to vision care. And it isn’t just human wellness Kathryn is interested in - she also writes about the health of our furry friends over at our sister site PetsRadar.