Since the COVID-pandemic began, mask-wearing has been an essential strategy to prevent the spread of the virus. While masks help protect us against exposure to infection, they can also cause dry eye symptoms.
If you are experiencing dry eye syndrome, consult with an eye doctor, who will determine the cause and treat the problem.
What Is Dry Eye Syndrome?
Dry eye syndrome is caused by either a low volume of tears or poor tear quality. A reduced volume of tears is most often caused by excessive tear evaporation, which can occur when air flows across the eyes, such as in a windy environment.
Poor quality tears occur when the oil layer of the tears is insufficient, which also leads to higher than usual levels of tear evaporation.
How Protective Masks Contribute to Dry Eyes
Masks certainly protect us against infectious droplets, but they can also cause fluid in the tears to evaporate more quickly. When a mask doesn’t fit properly, the breath we exhale can flow upward, causing more tear evaporation and dry eye symptoms.
In a study published in Ophthalmology and Therapy (2021) researchers from the University of Utah noted a marked increase in dry eye cases among mask wearers. These included people who were diagnosed with dry eye syndrome for the first time as well people who already had dry eye syndrome.
The problem is so common that eye care professionals have coined the term Mask Associated Dry Eye (MADE).
Symptoms of Dry Eye Syndrome
If you experience any or all of these symptoms, you may have dry eye syndrome:
- Eyes feel dry
- Red eyes
- Eyes that feel sandy or gritty
- Itchy or irritated eyes
- Watery eyes
Risk Factors for Developing Dry Eye Symptoms
The following are risk factors for dry eye symptoms:
- Being over 50
- Spending hours a day in front of a computer or other digital screens
- Being immunosuppressed
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Wearing contact lenses
- Extended face mask-wearing
How to Keep Your Eyes from Drying Out
Since there is a connection between protective masks and dry eye symptoms, here are some tips to preserve eye moisture while wearing a mask:
Choose a Secure Fit
Since breath, which can dry out the eyes, escapes the mask from the top, select a mask with a soft, flexible wire that allows you to fix it securely over the bridge of your nose. Or, simply fasten a piece of medical tape along the top of the mask around the bridge of your nose to secure it in place.
Consider Wrap-Around Glasses or Eye Goggles
To keep your eyes sealed from wind, debris and your own breath while donning a mask, consider wearing glasses with wrap-around frames, or eye goggles. Some types of goggles are regular glasses with silicone cups behind the lenses to keep them securely in position.
Take Frequent Screen Breaks
When we sit in front of screens, we blink much less. Blinking is essential for spreading moisture around the eye’s surface.
For people who need to wear a face mask while working on a computer, dry eye symptoms can be compounded, so screen breaks are a must. Try the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes in front of a screen, focus on something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This will give your eyes much needed rest breaks — and an opportunity to replenish moisture — during the day.
Practice Conscious Blinking
Throughout the day, monitor your blinking. Closing your eyes fully when you blink will completely coat the surface of your eyes with moisture. Here’s one exercise:
- Close your eyes completely
- Take a two-second pause
- Open your eyes
- Close your eyes again
- Pause two seconds
- Squeeze the lids together for two more seconds
- Open your eyes
Use Eye Drops
You can give your eyes extra moisture by purchasing over-the-counter eye drops, also known as artificial tears. Apply these according to directions on the bottle. Choose a preservative-free formula that will be gentler on your eyes.
Relax with Warm Compresses
Warm compresses not only soothe the eyes; the heat applied directly to the meibomian glands can stimulate the secretion of eye fluid. Make sure the water is warm but not too hot and place the compresses directly on closed eyelids.
See an Eye Doctor
If your symptoms of dry eye persist, schedule an eye exam at Austin Eye Professionals. We will give you a thorough eye exam and recommend a course of treatment, based on the underlying cause of your dry eye symptoms. Call Austin Eye Professionals in Austin today to schedule your eye exam.
Q: What Are Diagnostic Eye Exams for Dry Eye?
- A: A dry eye evaluation by your eye doctor begins with questions about your family health history, general health and any previous eye problems. The eye doctor may evaluate tear production using the Schirmer Test, which involves placing small pieces of blotting paper under your lower eyelids for five minutes and measuring the amount of tears. The phenol red thread test is similar to the Schirmer Test, but uses a thread soaked with PH-sensitive dye rather than blotting paper.
Q: Can You Wear Contact Lenses with Dry Eyes?
- A: Dry eye syndrome can be uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily a reason to forgo wearing contact lenses. Regular cleaning prevents the buildup of proteins on the lenses that can exacerbate dry eye symptoms. Some contact wearers find daily lenses that can be disposed of after each use more comfortable and convenient than monthly lenses.Silicone-based hydrogel lenses can slow down the rate of the contact lens drying out and can be beneficial for dry eyes. Scleral lenses, which are gas-permeable, allow more oxygen to reach the cornea and sit above the eye, creating a space for tears to collect and refresh the eye.