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Protecting your eyes is important year-round, but maintaining eye health in cold weather requires special considerations, especially if you enjoy outdoor activities. Fortunately, eye care in cooler weather does not have to be complicated.

Dry Air

The most common eye complaint in winter is dryness, or a burning, itching sensation in your eyes. Because winter air is drier, the moisture in your eyes evaporates more quickly than it does in humid summer air. Humidity levels are also lower indoors and in your vehicle when the heat is on, causing irritation. Dry air reduces the production of tears, which help keep your eyes moist.

Tips to keep your eyes moist and hydrated in cold weather include:

* Drink water. Water keeps your entire body hydrated, including your eyes. To ensure you are drinking enough water, carry a reusable water bottle with you, and refill it four to six times a day.

* Use eyedrops. Lubricating eyedrops help your eyes maintain moisture. Most saline or artificial tear eyedrops are available over the counter, but prescription strength drops are also available if necessary. Your eye doctor can recommend the drops that will be most effective for your eyes.

* Use a humidifier. Dry heat can cause the moisture in your eyes to evaporate. A humidifier can replace the moisture in the air that is lost when you have the heat on.

* Care for contacts. If you wear contact lenses, keep them clean and moisturized to eliminate irritation caused by contacts and dry eyes. Do not sleep in your contacts.

* Blink more. When you’re concentrating on a complex visual task, such as using a computer, you may not blink frequently enough. This can exacerbate winter dryness. If your eyes feel dry, try blinking more often to alleviate the irritation.

* Heat your feet. When warming up your vehicle, direct the heat toward your feet to avoid blasting hot air into your eyes. If you have seat warmers, use them to help reach a comfortable temperature rather than turning the heat up.

Eye Protection

While it may seem unnecessary to wear sunglasses when it’s cold outside, glasses and goggles are just as important in the winter as they are in the summer. Extreme cold is usually not the problem, as our eyes have built-in defenses against cold, including tearing and squinting. Eye injuries caused by cold exposure most often occur in individuals who try to force their eyes open in high winds or during outdoor activities in the snow, such as snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding and shoveling.

Protective eyewear is necessary to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun and from the drying effects of wind. Long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can damage the retina of the eye and cause cataracts, macular degeneration and growths on the eye. The American Optometric Association recommends wearing sunglasses or goggles year-round with UV protection that block both UVA and UVB rays and that are labeled either UV400 or 100 percent UV protection. When skiing, wear goggles that have polycarbonate lenses, which block UV radiation. All family members, including children, should wear eye protection to minimize exposure to UV light.

If you aren’t wearing goggles or sunglasses, limit your time outdoors on sunny or overcast days when the sky is very bright. Sunlight reflecting off snow causes a corneal injury or burn called photokeratitis. Eyelids may become red, swollen and sore. Eyes may feel irritated and sensitive to light. Treatment includes rewarming the eyes and applying medicine to moisten and protect the eyes.

If you suffer from glaucoma, you may experience changes in eye pressure when faced with extremely hot or extremely cold temperatures. This can complicate treatment for glaucoma and should be discussed with your doctor.

It is important to discuss the effects of cold weather on your eyes with your doctor. Some ophthalmologists may change your medications or prescribe eyedrops to help ensure your eyes are healthy during the winter months.

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