If your eyes are feeling more dry than normal these days, you’re not alone. Winter is notoriously the worst time of year for eye dryness due to the naturally drier outside air combined with furnaces drying out inside. This winter though, another factor is also contributing to eyes feeling more dry – our masks.
Wearing a mask is a crucial part of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but dry, irritated eyes can be one of the annoying side effects. So, why does it happen and what can you do to stop it? There are a few theories as to why mask wearing exacerbates dry eye. The most common is that when your mask doesn’t have an air-tight fit, breathing out directs airflow up and into your eyes. Think of it as how blowing your car’s AC vents directly into your eyes would also dry them out. Another contributor may be improper mask fit. A poorly fitting mask can pull down on your lower eyelids slightly and prevent them from doing their job of restoring your tear film, a big player in dry eye, when you blink.
Mask wearing is not the only cause of dry eye either. Factors including looking at a screen for too long, windy, smoky, and dry environments, certain medications, and laser eye surgery can all contribute to dry, irritated eyes.
So, what can you do about it? First step is ensuring a proper fit of your mask. Wearing a mask with an adjustable nose bridge you can mold to your face can ensure a tighter fit. After you’ve addressed the fit of the your mask we tend to treat mask induced dry eye just like we do any other form of dry eye.
First up – artificial tears. These are over the counter lubricating drops mimic your natural tears and help restore moisture to your eyes. In moderate to severe cases we recommend using artificial tears four times per day. And while these drops do provide immediate relief, their helpfulness increases as you use them more consistently over time – similar to how watering a plant is more effective if you do it daily than if you just give it a bunch of water when it gets really dry.
Next – eyelid hygiene. This one may be more of a surprise to you; what do our eyelids have to do with dryness? A lot actually. An important part of our tear film is the outer layer, which is made up largely of oil produced from our eyelids. This oil helps the tears to stay around longer and not evaporate too quickly. If your eyelids cannot produce sufficient oil you will feel the effects of dry eye. Sufficient oil production can be helped by the use of hot compresses. Applying heat to the closed eyelids in the form of a warm, damp washcloth or a special microwavable mask (available at our offices) helps to relieve any blocked oil glands and allow the oil to flow freely. The heat source should be kept in place for ten minutes and ideally repeated twice a day. The microwavable masks are preferred to a warm washcloth because they stay warm longer – a washcloth will have to be swapped out several times to maintain heat for the entire ten minutes.
If the combination of artificial tears and warm compresses leave your eyes still feeling dry, more intensive forms of intervention are available. Prescription eye drops that address the inflammatory component of dry eye, punctal plugs (a small, removable device that limits tear drainage and conserves your natural tears), as well as more specialized, high powered in office eyelid treatments are all additional options to relieve the symptoms of dry eye.
If you are struggling with dryness, mask related or not, we are here to answer any questions and discuss all of your options with you.