All over the world, air quality reports are often included in the day’s weather forecast—especially during the summer months, when ozone levels can spike. Although it may bother some people more than others, the eye is vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, which means air quality can certainly impact how comfortable your eyes feel. And, depending on how polluted the air is, it can affect your quality of life—particularly when it leads to irritation while you’re wearing your contact lenses.
Of course, there is no easy fix or overnight remedy that will repair the air outside your front door, but there are some simple strategies that can help you find relief for your eyes when air quality is at its worst.
What’s up with the air?
When scientists talk about smog and air pollution, they’re often referring to too much ozone, which seems like a contradiction. After all, ozone forms a protective layer that shields us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. In other words, ozone is a good thing, right? Yes and no. Ozone can be good or bad, depending on where it is found.
Ozone is an odorless, colorless gas that occurs both in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. In the Earth’s lower atmosphere, near ground level, ozone is not formed naturally. Rather, it is formed when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources react chemically in the presence of sunlight. This ground-level or "bad" ozone is a harmful air pollutant and a main ingredient of urban smog.
When ozone levels are very high, everyone should be concerned about ozone exposure. Ozone pollution is a big concern during the summer months because strong sunlight and hot weather result in harmful ozone concentrations.
Symptoms in the Eye
The frequently observed symptoms of air pollution-induced eye problem include:
- Burning and redness
- Allergy with severe itching, redness, discharge, swelling of the eyes and difficulty in opening them
- Increased risk of infections
- Gritty sensation
- Visual difficulties including refractive errors and impaired color vision
The dry eye syndrome (DES) is the most frequent complaint among all these. It occurs two times more often in women above 50 years. The surface of the eye is inflamed and dry, especially if the patient wears contact lens. Conjunctivitis associated with increased nitrogen dioxide levels is another common feature.
Risk groups include those who remain outside for a long time.
Can bad air quality make your eyes red?
Poor quality of air containing harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide has led to more people complaining of having red eyes.
Itching, irritations, chronic discomfort and symptoms of dry eye syndrome are consequences of toxic fumes and particles lying on the outer surface of the eye. This damages the tear film and can result in severe complications.
How is air pollution creating discomfort for contact lens users?
Doctors have said that air pollution can damage your contact lenses, causing harm to the eyes. For this reason many are now opting for daily disposable contact lens brands rather than monthlies.
To best avoid damage to your eyes, it is recommended that you wear contact lenses prescribed to you by your optician, and that you are following their advice and what is detailed in the manufacturer’s guidelines. You can shop from a variety of daily disposable contact lenses, including toric contact lenses for astigmatism and multifocal lenses for presbyopia. These contacts lenses are especially great as they are made from silicone hydrogel allowing a higher amount of oxygen to travel through the lens.
Contact lens wearers should ensure that they remove their lenses immediately if they face irritation and clean them with a suitable contact lens solution.
What can you do for an irritated eye?
If you experience soreness or itching, we suggest using eye care such as lubricating eye drops.
How can you protect your eyes from eye pollution?
You can minimise eye symptoms in a polluted environment by:
- Wearing high quality sunglasses to prevent pollutants from getting in your eyes. Butterfly and wrap lenses are particularly useful as they cover a larger surface of the eye.
- Avoiding the outdoors when pollution is at its peak.
- Relieving discomfort using eye drops to soothe irritation and dry eyes.
- Klopfer J. Effects of environmental air pollution on the eye. J Am Optom Assoc. 1989 Oct;60(10):773-8.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Smog—Who Does It Hurt? July 1999.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Ozone: Good Up High, Bad Nearby
- How Does Air Pollution Affect Eyes?
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At Golden Eye Optometry, we view good vision care as front line protection at every age. A routine eye exam can detect more than poor vision. It can shed early light on glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts and diabetes.