Winter isn’t exactly kind to the moisture-loving areas of your body. Your skin, hair, and nails are all at risk of getting seriously dried out. Your eyes are no exception since winter can make it feel like you’ve replaced them with tumbleweeds. That’s especially true if you have dry eye, a condition that happens when the quantity or quality of the tear film in your eyes isn’t enough to keep your eyes well-lubricated.
If you have dry eye, you’ll probably need to go above and beyond your usual eye care routine in order to stay comfortable through the cold months. Here’s how you can do that.
1. Use rewetting drops before your eyes even begin to feel dry.
Artificial tears are usually the first line of defense against dry eye, and you’re definitely going to need them during the winter months when factors like low humidity and indoor heaters make the air drier than usual, Vatinee Bunya, M.D., co-director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center, tells SELF.
She recommends using eye drops at least two times a day, but more often than that if you need them. The main point is to use them as a pre-emptive measure, not just a treatment to save your eyeballs when they’re parched. “It is often better to be proactive and prevent your eyes from getting too dry,” she says. “Once your eyes are bothering you and are very dry, it can be difficult to get them feeling better with artificial tears.”
When it comes to choosing your eye drops, consider factors like whether you may want a preservative-free option, since the kinds with preservatives may irritate your already vulnerable eyes, Dr. Bunya says. You should also avoid eye drops that promise to remove redness since they can actually make your eyes redder over time.
If over-the-counter eye drops don’t add enough moisture to your eyes, talk to your doctor about prescription options.
2. Direct any heaters you use toward your body, not your face.
Don’t let your attempts to stay warm sabotage your eyes. When your eyes are already dry, blasting them with warm air isn’t going to do you any favors. “Air hitting the eyes directly can cause the tear layer to evaporate,” Jennifer Fogt, O.D., fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and an associate professor in the College of Optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF. So, if you have a space heater at home or at work, make sure it’s not pointed at your face.
Same goes for using the heater in your car, if you drive. Even doing something as basic as using the defroster can be an issue. The air can bounce off the windshield and “hit your eyes right where it hurts,” Dr. Fogt says. If you can, try to defrost your car before you get into it, then direct the warm air toward your feet as you drive. If you need to keep the defroster running, throw on a pair of sunglasses. That should at least help to deflect some of the breeze. It also brings us to our next point.
3. Wear sunglasses that provide full coverage to your eyes when you go outside.
Sunglasses don’t usually get as much play in colder months as they do in summer, but they’re still pretty crucial for combatting dry eye, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist and contact lens specialist with UCLA Health, tells SELF. That cruel winter wind is obviously whipping around cold air, but the air is typically dry, too. Double whammy.
The American Optometric Association (AOA) specifically recommends wearing sunglasses every time you head outdoors to reduce your exposure to dry, frigid winds. If you can find ones with wrap-around frames, even better. Small sunglasses are trendy again, but if you’re trying to protect your eyes from the wind, you need better coverage than that.
4. Use a humidifier in your bedroom or workspace (or both).
In a perfect world, some sort of magical phenomenon would make sure the air around you is always perfectly humid to keep your eyes moisturized. In reality, you might need a humidifier to help you out, especially in your bedroom and your workspace, according to the AOA. This will add more moisture to the air where you probably spend the most time, increasing the odds you’ll have happily lubricated eyeballs for prolonged periods of time, Dr. Shibayama says.
5. Make warm eyelid compresses a part of your morning and nightly routine.
A slew of different factors can cause dry eye. In some cases, you might have what’s called Meibomian gland dysfunction, which is when your Meibomian glands (located under your eyelids) don’t do a good job of producing the outer oily layer of your tears, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). This can cause your tears to evaporate too quickly, leaving your eyeballs feeling like mini-deserts.
If this is what’s behind your dry eye, using a warm eyelid compress (wet a washcloth with warm water, wring it out, and hold it over your eyes for a few minutes) can help loosen up any clogged oil glands in your eyes, helping the oily part of your tears flow and spread a little more easily, Dr. Shibayama says.
While this is crucial if you have Meibomian gland dysfunction, it may even help if you have other causes of dry eye that affect those glands, Dr. Shibayama says. For instance, rosacea can clog Meibomian glands, so warm compresses may be helpful.
6. When you’re using a phone, computer, or other digital screen, pause every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
While being glued to your computer might earn your props from your boss, it’s probably screwing you over in the dry eye department.
When you’re in front of a screen, you tend to blink less often than you normally would, the NEI says. The issue there is that blinking spreads your tear film across your eyes to help keep them moist.
As a workaround, Dr. Bunya recommends taking “periodic breaks” to consciously blink and look at something far away, which should make you blink even more. If you need a more specific number, Dr. Shibayama recommends following the “20-20-20 rule”: Every 20 minutes, look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
7. Clean your place at least once a week, and focus on eliminating dust.
Dust mites, i.e., microscopic critters that feed off your dead skin flakes, are the most common trigger of allergies, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you happen to be allergic to those on top of having dry eye, constantly being indoors in a dusty home isn’t going to do you any favors. “Any allergy that affects your eyes will also irritate dry eyes even further,” Dr. Fogt says.
Dusting and vacuuming your place regularly (ideally at least once a week) can definitely help, as can removing any clutter that collects dust, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) says. Here’s exactly how to clean your home when you have a dust mite allergy.
Encasing your mattress, box spring, and pillows in special allergen-proof fabric covers or airtight, zippered plastic covers can help reduce dust mites on your bedding, along with washing your sheets once a week in hot water, the AAAAI says.
Obviously, it can be tough to find the time to clean this much, but just do your best.
8. Keep your distance from wood-burning fires.
Winter is a great time to get cozy around an open fire, but smoke can increase the evaporation of tears from your eyes, leaving them feeling even more dried out than usual, the NEI says.
The severity of your dry eye and frequency of fire exposure will likely determine your threshold here. If your dry eye is generally under control and you have a one-off hangout in front of a wood-burning fire, your eyes might feel fine, Dr. Bunya says. But if you have a fireplace at home, you may want to limit how often you use it. At least make sure you have really great ventilation going when you do use it, and don’t position yourself right in front of the flames.
If you make all these moves and your dry eye is still bothering you, talk to your doctor. You may need to step up your treatment.