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Eyes in the extreme cold


Man with beard in the cold snow

Extreme cold is not something most Australians have to endure. But elsewhere in the world, rare cold-weather events do occur – like the extreme winters North American’s faced back in 2017 and again in 2019, where temperatures dropped below those in the Arctic. Such events make us think about how cold weather affects our eyes.

Believe it or not, our eyes are extremely resilient to the cold, but there are sensible precautions you can take to protect them. Whether you have a ski holiday planned soon, or you’re going on a business trip somewhere cold, this article is for you.

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. To compensate, your brain tells your eyes to produce more tears. Solution: Use eye drops before you go outside, blink more frequently and wear glasses or goggles to protect your eyes from 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. High levels of UV exposure also increases the risk of developing 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: 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, our eyes have eyelashes, eyelids and salty teardrops to help us withstand 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 teardrops. Plus our body’s warmth helps protect us from the cold.

Even with all these mechanisms, extremely cold weather can still sometimes cause the following severe symptoms:

  • Loss of vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision
  • Severe sensitivity to light
  • Eye pain
  • Frozen cornea.

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

Never take your vision for granted.

The eyes are vert resilient, which is why when you see people out in the extreme cold their eyes are often the only exposed part of their body. Despite this, you should always prevent unnecessary risk of damage. So, if you happen to find yourself in a polar vortex, be sure to look after your eyes.

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The information on this page is general in nature. All medical and surgical procedures have potential benefits and risks. Consult your ophthalmologist for specific medical advice.

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