Remember the classic song, When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by the Platters? While it’s true the occasional plume of smoke from a campfire wafting directly into your eyes never feels good, the discomfort is usually short-lived and typically relegated to minor irritation, stinging, and brief tearing up.
Regardless, you never want to experience eye irritation from any outside, environmental factors – and there are certainly many more dangerous, damaging, and even surprising environmental factors than a puff of wood smoke to be aware of.
Environmental factors affecting your eyesight
There’s an understanding and acceptance of the importance related to protecting the skin and the respiratory system from harmful environmental factors like the sun, harmful chemicals, toxins, and pollutants. For some reason, the same level of understanding and acceptance does not seem to exist for arguably our most important sense, our vision.
Environmental factors like pollutants, toxic gasses and chemicals, bacteria, smoking, and ultraviolet radiation can irritate and damage various parts of the eyes.
While the eye is created with natural, protective mechanisms (including the eyelid, eyelash, and tears) that protect against environmental elements like wind, dust, and bright light, the fact is your eyes need to remain open in order to see. Considering this, it becomes easier to understand how chronic and repeated exposure of the eye to even small amounts of pollutants, toxins, or other factors can slowly damage parts of the eye and result in progressive vision loss.
How environmental factors damage your vision
There are a number of ways your eyes can be damaged through exposure to environmental pollution, but the most common is direct exposure to chemicals, ozone, nitrogen, and other harmful substances carried in every day, open air found within our atmosphere.
Short-term vision damage resulting from air pollution
Recent data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 99% of the global population breathes air that contains high levels of pollutants.
Similar to breathing these pollutants in, daily exposure to common air pollutants emitted by motor vehicles, factories, household cleaning products, aerosol sprays, and even smoke produced by forest fires occurring thousands of miles away introduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dust, and other irritants into the eye where they cause inflammation, irritation, dry eye, and other more serious eye issues.
In fact, several studies have demonstrated that exposure to increased levels of air pollution is consistently associated with higher incidences of conjunctivitis and related eye irritation.
Long-term vision damage resulting from air pollution and other environmental factors
While short-term vision damage typically involves inflammation or irritation of the sclera, cornea, and lens, long-term vision damage has proven to be much more dangerous, and in many cases, irreversible.
In addition to contributing to developing chronic dry eye, exposure to environmental factors such as pollution can also increase the chances of developing age-related macular degeneration.
Air pollution not only directly affects the eyes by causing irritation but also enters the bloodstream through the respiratory system and damages the tiny blood vessels found throughout the eye. Over time, this causes damage to the retina and has been linked to increased vision loss and even blindness.
Researchers have also discovered that air pollution is directly linked to an increased risk of glaucoma, another serious eye condition that can lead to severe vision loss and blindness.
Beyond that, studies have shown that air pollution is linked to a higher risk of glaucoma, a debilitating eye condition that can contribute to permanent vision loss.
Tips to protect your eyes from damage caused by environmental factors
While there isn’t much that you can do to immediately reduce the amount of damaging substances currently present in the environment, there are steps that you can take to protect your eyes and your vision from the harmful effects that pollution causes. These steps include:
Wearing protective glasses or sunglasses
Much like wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19, wearing protective glasses or sunglasses while outside won’t provide you with 100% protection from the harmful effects of air pollution but they will reduce the pollutants that come in direct contact with your eyes. As an added bonus, wearing glasses or sunglasses with UV protective lenses will further protect your eyes from the harmful effects of the environment.
Avoid the urge to rub your irritated eyes
When your eyes are inflamed as a result of environmental factors they tend to itch and burn. It’s natural to want to rub your burning and irritated eyes, but it’s very important to avoid doing this. Your eyes feel this way because of an external factor: dust, chemicals, ozone, or the like, which triggers your eye’s defense system.
Rubbing your eyes might give you the instant gratification your body craves, but in reality, the action could not only be causing greater irritation, but it could also cause serious damage to your eyes. Environmentally-induced eye irritation is typically caused by a foreign substance that is actually in the eye or on the lens of the eye. Rubbing your eyes often causes the intent to move all around the eye (and often under the pressure of your fingers) which could also result in your eye becoming further irritated or developing a corneal abrasion or your lens.
Invest in high-quality lubricating eye drops
Rather than give in to the urge to rub your irritated eyes, turn to a proven solution, a high-quality lubricating eye drop. Environmental irritants contribute to dry eye, a condition that prevents the formation of tears or adequate moisture for your eyes. Quality lubricating eye drops not only provide the right amount of moisture for your eye, but they also serve as an effective tool for flushing environmental irritants from the eye and helping to quell the urge to rub them when irritated.
When looking for the best lubricating eye drops, always look for a brand that is made without preservatives. Preservatives in a lubricating eye drop can often act as another type of environmental irritant, causing further inflammation to your already irritated eyes. Preservative-free eye drops are clearly labeled as such on the package. Quality lubricating eye drop brands include Refresh, Thera Tears, Systane, and Optase.
Schedule regular visits with your eye doctor
Frequent eye irritation could be the result of exposure to environmental factors, including pollution, dust, bacteria, ozone, chemicals, or other irritants, but it could also be the sign of another, more serious eye issue. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends maintaining regular appointments for routine eye care with your eye care provider. In addition, it’s highly recommended you schedule an eye appointment when you notice significant changes in your vision, whether directly related to environmental factors or not.