UV RaysSure, the sky might be overcast throughout the winter months, but that doesn’t mean risk from sun exposure disappears. In fact, ultraviolet (UV) rays are 80% more intense when reflected off snow1. As you head up the mountain into higher altitudes you’ll also find that the air is thinner and provides even less protection from UV rays than normal.
The glare from snow can lead to snow blindness, or photokeratitis, a painful corneal condition akin to having a sunburn on your eye. Symptoms can include sensitivity to bright light, vision halos, blurriness, tearing and (rarely) temporary vision loss2. In addition, overexposure to UV rays can contribute to cataracts, skin cancer around the eyes and eyelids and macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness among adults over 651.
The key to winter UV ray protection is the same as it is during the summer months: eyewear. Sunglasses or goggles labeled with UV protective coating can filter out 99-100% of harmful rays and keep your eyes safe2. Beyond saving your eyes from painful sunburns, wearing wraparound goggles while you’re participating in winter sports like skiing or snowboarding can keep out dirt, ice and other debris that might hit your eyes while you’re whooshing down the mountain.
Dry AirIt may seem odd that dry air is a hazard during the winter when rain and snow seem to be constantly falling from the sky, but the air outside is often drier than in the summer months, thanks to the cold temperatures and wind. On top of that, indoor heating can dry out the air inside, often where we spend the most time during colder months. The change in air quality and harsh winter winds can cause sudden onset evaporation of the moisture in your eyes. Your poor tear ducts simply cannot keep up with the demand; you need fluid to keep your eyes hydrated, and when your tear ducts are falling behind, the lack of fluid may lead to dry eye symptoms.
To combat drying indoor heating systems, try a humidifier. The extra moisture in the air will not only alleviate dry eye, but can help prevent nose bleeds, chapped lips, and sinuses dried from a cold. And as much as sitting close to the fire or blasting your car heater might feel good, it’s better to keep your distance from blowing heat sources to keep your eyes from feeling dry. Additionally, sunglasses and goggles can help protect you from dry eye symptoms by stopping cold winds or icy snowflakes from reaching your eyes. Hydrating—whether by drinking water or tea or eating soup—is also helpful, as it is a simple and healthy way to keep your entire body, including your eyes, moisturized. Treating winter dry eye with artificial tears will most likely take care of seasonal symptoms, but if you experience persistent dryness, pain or extra watery eyes, make an appointment with your doctor3.
Extreme ColdLet’s get one thing out of the way: it is impossible for your eyeballs to freeze while they are still attached to your living body. Our eyelashes, eyelids, salty tears (which have a lower freezing point than non-salt water), as well as body heat, help shield our eyes from freezing4. However, if you are participating in a sport such as downhill skiing or riding on a snowmobile without proper eye protection, the combination of extreme cold and increase in wind speed can cause your cornea (the outer layer of the eyeball) to freeze. In addition, cold winds can make the tear film evaporate faster and cause your eyes to produce more tears in reaction5, possibly leading to icicles on your eyelashes.
While all of this sounds pretty crazy, a warm hand or compress over your eyes will melt any ice that has formed. After thawing your cornea, make sure to keep your eyes completely covered for 24-48 hours. Don’t worry, there’s good news: all you need to prevent this type of injury are wraparound goggles! You can even use the same ones you bought to protect you from UV rays and dry eye symptoms.
Winter is Coming
Not everyone likes the cold weather or winter sports, but everyone is equally at risk of these winter eye hazards if they don’t take care to protect themselves. Your eyes may not feel cold, but the cold, dry air is affecting them all the same. Wearing sunglasses or goggles can protect you from most (if not all) of these eye problems, but make sure you check in with a doctor if you experience serious symptoms. Your eyes are with you whether you’re shoveling snow on your driveway, cozying up by the fire or ice skating at the local pond, so treat them well. The weather outside may be frightful, but that doesn’t mean your eye health has to be.
- Alderman, L. ”Let the Sunshine In, but Not the Harmful Rays.” New York Times. 2011.
- Boyd, K. ”What is Photokeratitis — Including Snow Blindness?” American Optometric Association. 1 March 2015.
- ”Facts About Dry Eye.” National Eye Institute. 2013.
- Johnston, L. ”Will running in extreme cold freeze my eyeballs? Inquiring corneas want to know ...” Daily News. 25 January 2011.
- Rivas, A. ”Winter Weather And Wind Chills: Why We Cry When It's Cold, And The Optimal Eyelash Length To Avoid It.” Medical Daily. 25 February 2015.