Air Pollution Affects Your Lungs But It Can Also Affect Your Eyes

Woman with irritated eyes.

Air Pollution May Be to Blame for Your Itchy, Dry Eyes

Air pollution doesn't just cause respiratory issues, it may also affect your eyes. Exposure to pollutants can cause eye problems whether you live in a large city or a rural area.

Pollution is a Worldwide Problem

You're exposed to pollutants no matter where you live in the country. Although large cities like Los Angeles have the highest levels of pollution, air quality issues can affect less populated areas too, due to emissions from local businesses and farms. In fact, the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2019 report noted that more than 40 percent of Americans live in counties that received at least one "F" for unhealthy air quality.

Wind plays a crucial role in spreading pollution. Currents send pollutants thousands of miles from their origin, exposing millions of people to the unhealthy effects of pollution. Although some areas of the country are certainly less polluted than others, all of us are affected by pollution to some degree.

Common Pollution-Related Eye Symptoms

Dry eye is the most common eye issue related to air quality. Pollutants cause dry eye by decreasing moisture in the tear film that lubricates the surface of your eye. If your eyes are too dry, you may experience:

  • Discomfort. Burning, stinging and itching are common if you have dry eye.
  • Redness. Redness often accompanies irritation.
  • Light Sensitivity. Dry eyes are more sensitive to light. Both sunlight and bright indoor lights can make you want to squint.
  • Blurred Vision. Does your vision blur after you read for a while? You may not need new glasses or contact lenses. Lack of moisture due to dry eye can also affect your ability to see clearly.
  • Watery Eyes. Watery eyes can also be a sign of dry eye. Your eyes may try to increase moisture by unleashing a flood of tears.
  • Foreign Body Sensation. Dry eyes may make it feel as if you have something in your eye, even after you use eye drops.
  • Increased Mucus. Stringy mucus can be another indication of dry eye.
  • Contact Lens Discomfort. Contact lenses may dry out and quickly become very uncomfortable if dry eye affects your tear film. The lenses can also absorb and trap pollutants and contaminants that irritate the eyes.

Air pollution may contribute to or cause other eye issues. A research study conducted in Barcelona explored a possible link between traffic-related air pollution and myopia, or nearsightedness.

The study found that schoolchildren exposed to traffic pollution were more likely to need glasses. Although further studies will be needed to confirm those results, the study poses an interesting question about the far-reaching effects of pollution.

How to Relieve Pollution Symptoms

Ignoring dry eye symptoms isn't a good idea. The occasional dry eye won't lead to long-term issues, but chronic dry eye can damage or even scar the cornea, the clear layer of cells that covers your iris and pupil. Corneal damage and scarring can affect your ability to see clearly.

You can treat dry eye and reduce your risk by:

  • Wearing Sunglasses. Sunglasses offer protection from dust and airborne pollutants. Wrap-around styles offer the most protection.
  • Using Eyedrops. Lubricating eye drops increase moisture and reduce your dry eye symptoms. Rewetting drops may improve contact lens comfort.
  • Buying a Humidifier. Humidifiers add moisture inside your home and may relieve or decrease your symptoms.
  • Checking the Forecast. Many weather websites offer alerts when local air quality is unhealthy. Although you may not be able to stay home from work just because of an air quality warning, you can reschedule gardening and other outdoor tasks.
  • Changing Your Contact Lenses. If dry eye is a frequent problem for you, your optometrist may recommend switching to daily wear lenses or changing the brand of lenses you wear.
  • Wearing Your Glasses More Often. Reducing contact lens wear time may improve eye comfort if you have dry eye. If you can, leave your contact lenses in their case if you receive an air quality weather alert.
  • Visiting Your Eye Doctor. Be sure to bring up your dry eye symptoms at your next appointment with your optometrist. If you have severe or chronic dry eye, don't wait for your regular eye exam to discuss the problem. Call your eye doctor right away to schedule a visit.

Do any of these signs and symptoms sound familiar? We can help you relieve pain and discomfort caused by dry eye. Contact us to schedule an appointment.


Optometry Times: How Air Pollution Affects the Ocular Surface

PLOS/ONE: Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Spectacles Use in Schoolchildren, 4/3/17

Journal of Ocular Infection and Inflammation: Minor to Chronic Eye Disorders Due to Environmental Pollution: A Review, 4/26/18

American Lung Association: The State of the Air 2019

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