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Eyes in the extreme cold

26/08/2017

Extreme cold is not something most Australians have to endure, but if you have been watching the news recently, America faced temperatures colder than the Arctic in a rare weather occurrence. It made us think about how cold weather affects our eyes. Maybe you have a ski holiday planned soon, or you’re going on a business trip somewhere cold. Believe it or not, our eyes are extremely resilient to the cold, but there are sensible precautions you can take to protect them.

These are the three main ways cold climates can affect your eyes:

  1. Your eyes get watery. Cold winds make the moisture in your eyes evaporate. This may cause your eyes to start to tear when you go outside because your brain orders your eyes to create excessive tears to compensate. Solution: Use eye drops before you go outside, blink more frequently and wear glasses or goggles to protect against the wind.
  2. Heated buildings dry out your eyes. Cold weather means people ramp up their heaters, which often makes rooms very dry and can cause your eyes to feel dry and itchy. Solution: Use a humidifier in your house or office to put some moisture back in the air. Typical solutions for dry eyes will also help such as eye drops and blinking frequently.
  3. Additional brightness from the snow can ‘burn’ your eyes. Too much UV exposure can cause inflammation of the cornea, a condition called keratitis, which makes your eyes red, sore and sensitive to light. UV exposure also helps form cataracts. Most people think this is just a summer concern, but it’s not. With the reflection from the snow, the sun can be as, or even more, violent in the winter. Solution: Beautiful, white snow on the ground can reflect the sun and double your UV exposure. Be sure to wear UV protected sunglasses or polycarbonate ski goggles to protect your eyes. Even if you wear contact lenses with UV protection, it’s important to still wear sunglasses on top.

Natural protective mechanisms

Just as cars have heating, windshield, wipers and anti-freeze to keep your windows from freezing, your eyes have eyelashes, eyelids and salty tear drops to help us cope with freezing cold temperatures. Saltwater freezes at much colder temperatures than normal water, which is why our eyes can stay moist in sub-zero temperatures with our salty tear drops. Plus our body’s warmth helps protect us from the cold. Even with all these mechanisms, extreme cold weather can still sometimes cause the following severe symptoms:

If any of the severe conditions take place, go inside somewhere to warm up your eyes. If conditions persist, see a medical professional.

Never take your vision for granted.

The eyes are extremely resilient, which is why when you see people out in the extreme cold it’s the only part of their body exposed. However, if you happen to find yourself in a polar vortex, look after your eyes and they will look after you.

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