According to the National Eye Institute, chronic dry eye is a potentially serious condition that can result in eye discomfort and vision problems.
The condition is widespread, but it’s become even more common as a result of COVID-19 prevention measures. One paper details how lockdown strategies may have led to an increase in what the authors call “quarantine dry eye.”
People can take preventive steps to support eye health, even when spending more time at home in front of screens.
The paper, a 2021 research review, outlines some important ways COVID-19 prevention measures affect the occurrence and severity of dry eye disease. The authors point to more screen time, disruption of nutritious eating habits, and irregular sleep patterns as reasons for more cases of dry eye disease.
They cite previous research which found that indoor air quality contributes to dry eye. Air conditioning increases airflow over your eyes. When combined with work in front of screens, it adds to tear evaporation.
Staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to improper diet because of changes in cooking and dining routines. People may therefore lack sufficient amounts of essential fatty acids, vitamin A, and vitamin D, all of which are important for eye health.
Improper sleep can also reduce tear quality and contribute to dry eye. The authors note that certain medications, including those prescribed for mental health concerns, which some may have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, can also result in dry eye symptoms.
Other studies of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on eye health support the conclusions of the paper’s authors.
A 2021 study involving 1,797 people who switched to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic showed a significant increase in digital eye strain symptoms. Nearly one-third (28.6 percent) of respondents had severe dry eye disease. The study authors connected these results in part to the increase in time using visual display terminals.
A 2020 survey of 107 medical students in Italy showed that more than 10 percent had new or worsening eye symptoms, and 19.6 percent used tear substitutes daily. Researchers attributed these results to increased screen time and mask usage, which contributed to the drying of tears.
According to the American Optometric Association, eye health professionals continued to provide care with new safety protocols in place during the pandemic. Despite these reassurances, people with dry eye noted in a separate survey that they could not always get the professional eye care they wanted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 2021 study of 388 people with pre-existing dry eye found that those with moderate dry eye had a significant increase in symptoms between June and July 2020. Compared to people with mild dry eye, those with severe dry eye also reported reduced access to treatment.
Additionally, almost one-quarter (23 percent) said they could not get prescription treatments for dry eye, and 14 percent indicated lack of access to in-office treatment. One-third (33 percent) had trouble getting over-the-counter products.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says that people usually blink about 15 times a minute. Screen time reduces that blink rate to five to seven times a minute. Fewer blinks and “incomplete” blinks, where your eyelids do not close completely, result in less moisture on the surface of your eyes.
The AAO also says that there’s no evidence that blue light from screens causes eye damage. However, blue light can affect sleep patterns. Optometrists recommend shutting off screens 2 to 3 hours before going to bed to support healthy sleep. Inadequate sleep can cause eye dryness.
Wearing an ill-fitting mask can also contribute to dry eye disease. Breathing with a mask causes air flow to move upward, over the surface of your eyes, and results in tear evaporation. Researchers at the University of Waterloo recommend finding a mask that correctly fits your face and even taping the top to prevent upward air flow.
Even as some parts of the world emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many people continue to work and study from home. Here are some ways to keep your eyes healthy and prevent dry eye disease:
Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Break up your screen time every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Blink frequently. Close your eyelids deliberately and regularly. You can even post a reminder note by your digital screens to stop and blink.
Wear a well-fitting mask. Choose a mask that fits snugly over your nose to reduce upward air flow.
Eat a nutritious diet. Try to eat foods that are high in vitamin D and A.
Take supplements. Ask your optometrist if supplements can improve your eye health. The AAO says that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may increase tear production.
Turn off the screen before bed. Try to make the last 2 to 3 hours before bed screen-free time.
Use artificial tears. You can use over-the-counter artificial tears throughout the day when you experience dry eye. Lubricating gels with nighttime application may provide added relief.
Call your eye doctor. Your eye doctor can help assess whether dry eye is caused by screen time, diet, or possibly an autoimmune condition like Sjögren’s disease.
COVID-19 prevention measures have been essential to help the world emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift to working remotely, mask wearing, and spending more time at home has lead to an increase in dry eye.
People can ease the symptoms of this condition through reduced screen time, a nutritious diet, proper use of masks, artificial tears, and regular eye doctor appointments.