Every time spring arrives, many of us became painfully aware of our eyes. Excess pollen and dust cause blood vessels to swell and the body produces histamine, making the eyes itch, tear up, and turn red.
But instead of taking reactionary measures when the spring onslaught arrives, Summit Health ophthalmologist Dr. Monica Khalil says we need to be taking good care of our eyes all year round. Here's how.
If you hear your parent's voice in your head telling you to keep your hands away from your eyes, well, they're right. If you do have allergies to pollen, dust, mold, cigarette smoke, or pet dander, scratching or rubbing will cause your body to release even more histamine in response.
Instead, Dr. Khalil recommends the following: "Make sure to wear sunglasses when outdoors, shower before sleeping so you don't 'bathe' in the allergens all night and avoid open windows and window fans, which can allow pollen to enter your home. Air conditioning is preferable for temperature control in this setting."
Over-the-counter tear drops can help wash allergens from your eyes, and taking antihistamines, oral and/or topical, can also help. If you wear contacts during high pollen count seasons, you might want to switch to glasses for that time.
Contact lenses alone are a significant irritant if you misuse them and can cause "a tremendous risk to the safety of the eyes," says Dr. Khalil. For safe contact lens use, follow these guidelines:
- No sleeping with them in
- No showering with them in
- No swimming with them in
"When wearing contacts, always use good hygiene and be sure to wash your hands when applying or removing them," she says. "Violating these rules can result in vision-threatening eye infections."
Whether or not you suffer from allergies, be careful with makeup. Use only products designed specifically for eyes, avoid any that include harsh chemicals, and never share with someone else. Using another person's mascara, eyeshadow, or eyeliner easily spreads things like conjunctivitis (pink eye).
"Throw away eye makeup after three months and get new products," Dr. Khalil advises. "Remove all eye makeup before sleeping at night and avoid glitter makeup since flakes can fall into the eye."
Fake eyelashes can also pose a problem. "They can irritate the skin around the eyes and can sometimes scratch the cornea," Dr. Khalil says. If you're a fan of the look, head for professional help rather than doing it yourself.
Since it's important to wash away allergens and remove eye makeup and other irritants before sleeping, develop a simple but effective routine. "According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, baby shampoo is an inexpensive and ophthalmologist-recommended product for washing the eyelids," Dr. Khalil says. Vaseline is also an effective way to remove makeup.
For people with blepharitis—what Dr. Khalil calls "a common inflammatory condition that presents with debris on the eyelashes"—she recommends soft, over-the-counter cleansing wipes to clean the lids and lashes.
Perhaps nothing is more important than routine eye exams. Pediatricians should screen children regularly at wellness appointments and refer them to ophthalmology for any abnormalities.
Dr. Khalil recommends exams for those with "excellent vision" once in their 20s and twice in their 30s. As you age, you're more likely to develop a problem. "The American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that, by age 65, one in three Americans will have a vision-impairing eye disease," she says. "Signs of these diseases can begin in midlife, but people often have no symptoms. The earlier these diseases are found and treated, the better the chances of preserving good vision."
Everyone should have a comprehensive exam at age 40 to establish a baseline. "Those with certain risk factors like diabetes or hypertension should have annual eye exams because some of the damaging consequences of these diseases may have no symptoms early on," she says.
In other words, the kinder you are to your eyes, the nicer they'll be to you in the long run.
Unless a problem is identified and more frequent visits are advised, below is a quick breakdown of recommendations for frequency of eye exams by age group:
- In your 20s – One visit
- In your 30s – One visit every five years
- At age 40 – One visit
- Between ages 40 and 65 – One visit every two years
- Age 65 and older – One visit annually
If you have any concerns, symptoms, or risk factors you should be seen more frequently.