Kimberly Riordan, O.D., Florida Eye Specialists
Wearing a face mask is an important part of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but masks can cause some unfortunate side effects. Breakouts, foggy glasses and irritation around your face are just the start—new research finds that masks can also cause dry eye. A report published in the journal Ophthalmology and Therapy revealed a significant increase in cases of irritation and dry eye among people who regularly wear masks, known as mask-associated dry eye.
Mask use is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, so it is important to understand how you can protect your eyes from infection and irritation. The good news is that you can do something about mask-associated dry eye. But first you need to know what dry eye is, how a face mask can cause dry eye, and what you can do to prevent and treat this new condition.
What is Dry Eye?
Before we get into mask-associated dry eye, we need to revisit dry eye itself. Dry eye is a condition where the eyes don’t produce enough tears, or the right quality of tears, to be healthy or comfortable. Tears are necessary for maintaining the health of the front surface of the eye and for providing clear vision. With each blink of the eyelids, tears spread across the front surface of the eye, known as the cornea.
If you have dry eye, you might experience blurred vision, stinging, burning, or a scratching sensation in the eyes. Eye redness, eye fatigue and contact lens intolerance are also common. You might find yourself squinting more at the end of the day. This is because when eyes are drier, they get tired more quickly.
How a Face Mask Can Cause Dry Eye
Since mask-associated dry eye is a new condition, the exact cause has not been identified. However, there are some theories. One theory is that mask-associated dry eye is caused by an airflow issue. It occurs when exhaled air exits your mask by moving upwards, forcing air to move over the surface of your eyes. This results in tear evaporation and ultimately dries out your eyes. You are most likely to experience mask-associated dry eye if your mask fits loosely on your face.
People who are especially prone to mask-associated dry eye include contact lens wearers and people who stare at electronic screens for extended periods of time (which, due to the new digital world we’re living in, is most of us).
How to Prevent and Treat Mask-Associated Dry Eye
Though the symptoms that come as a result of wearing a mask are irritating, they are not reasons to skip a mask altogether. There are ways to manage your dry eye while continuing to wear a mask.
To prevent mask-associated dry eye, it’s key to find a mask that fits tightly on your face. This will keep air from escaping at the top. Another way to prevent mask-associated dry eye is to take digital breaks. Remember the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes of screen time, look away from your screen. Focus on something at least 20 feet away for around 20 seconds. Giving your eyes this well-deserved break will help reduce strain and eye fatigue. Lastly, speak to an eye specialist when you feel an early onset of mask-associated dry eye. This includes discomfort and blurred vision.
To treat mask-associated dry eye, use a hot compress on your eyes at night. This will help stimulate more tears. You can also try using lubricating eye drops a few times a day. In severe cases of mask-associated dry eye, wearing sealed goggles may help. Goggles that fit properly keep moisture in and the virus out.
We’re all adjusting to a new life. But that doesn’t mean our eyes have to suffer. If you’re still experiencing symptoms of mask-associated dry eye, make an appointment with a medical professional. Your dry eye specialist will help you determine the cause of your dry eye and come up with a custom-tailored treatment plan just for you.
Kimberly Riordan, O.D., is the Dry Eye Center Lead at Florida Eye Specialists, and she practices part-time out of the Ponte Vedra office. For more information about the Florida Eye Specialists Dry Eye Center, visit FloridaEyeSpecialists.com/Dry-Eye-Center.
Column drafted for Florida Eye Specialists and submitted to the Ponte Vedra Recorder.