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Being curious is good for your eyesight. Here’s how to maximize your time with your optometrist.
If you only expect your eye doctor to give you 20/20 vision, you’re missing a huge opportunity.
“Some people don’t realize everything they can learn from their eye doctor,” says optometrist Elizabeth Walsh Czirr, O.D., with Nashville Regional Eyecare, located inside an America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses.
Even if your only concern right now is your eyesight, she explains, every exam is a chance to learn more about good vision for life. Like the other doctors on your health-care team, your eye doctor plays a key role in keeping your whole body healthy.
“People can have great vision, but when they come in for an eye exam, I’ll look in their eyes and find glaucoma or other diseases that definitely could have been prevented and or treated sooner,” says Dr. Czirr.
And while primary care doctors are famously short on time—the average primary care visit in the United States lasts just 20 minutes—Dr. Czirr says optometrists often have room in their schedules for appointments that don’t feel rushed.
The bottom line: Take advantage of your time with your eye health expert! Start by asking a few key questions.
Question #1: Am I Showing Signs of Digital Eyestrain?
Patients of all ages need to know about this cluster of symptoms that includes eyestrain, blurry vision, and dry eye.
Reading words on a screen is more difficult than reading words in a book, explains the American Optometric Association. Often, the glare from the screen and the sometimes fuzzier text can force our eyes to work harder, which strains our eyes.
Plus, Dr. Czirr says, when we stare at a screen, we don’t blink nearly as much as we should. Blinking lubricates our eyes in the form of tears, and not blinking enough can cause dryness and irritation.
“The majority of us are on our phones or computers without taking enough breaks,” says Dr. Czirr, who’s an advocate of the 20-20-20 rule: “After 20 minutes of computer work, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds,” she says. “It also reminds you to blink while allowing your eyes to relax.”
Question #2: Are There Any Eye Drops or Over-the-Counter Products I Should Be Using?
Dry eye is a common complaint—especially among adults who know what it’s like to blow out 50 birthday candles. (Tear production naturally slows as we age.) And sometimes lifestyle changes like running a humidifier and pressing a warm cloth to your eyelids twice a day aren’t enough to relieve the symptoms.
That’s where over-the-counter eye drops, or artificial tears, can help. Problem is, many people don’t know that they should be using them.
“I see people who have been diagnosed with dry eye in the past, but they weren’t given any options of how to treat their dryness,” says Dr. Czirr. “That’s what the drops are there for: to help you with your dryness. You don’t have to live with it.”
Other people who might benefit from regular use of eye drops are those with bothersome eye allergies. And anyone who has had a repeated bout of an eyelid inflammation known as posterior lid margin disease (or PLMD, a form of blepharitis) might want to consider using an OTC eyelid scrub.
PLMD causes the tear glands to pump out an abnormally oily and unstable tear film, which in turn leads to a burning sensation, even blurry vision. Using an OTC eyelid scrub can bring relief on the go. Making it part of your daily routine may help keep your eyelashes and lids clean and cut down on recurrences.
Question #3: I Wear Contacts. What Can I Do to Protect My Eyes?
If you’re like most contact lens wearers, you’re not storing, cleaning, or wearing your contacts properly. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults often sleep in their lenses, go swimming with contacts in, or store lenses in old cases—all of which are big no-nos that could set you up for eye infections.
“People tend to push the limits on their contact use,” says Dr. Czirr.
The number-one thing you can do to prevent an infection, she says, is to practice good contact hygiene. Always wash and dry your hands before touching the lenses. And avoid swimming or even showering with your lenses still in.
Here’s why: Acanthamoebakeratitis, a microorganism that lives in water, can cling to your lenses if you start to take shortcuts with your care routine. It can cause permanent vision loss, including blindness. And swim goggles won’t protect you. Similarly, always store your lenses in fresh solution, and buy a new case every three months.
“It only takes that one time to give you a bad infection,” she says.
Question #4: Will My Vision Get Worse?
Maybe your prescription has stayed the same since high school. But chances are, it will change in the future.
Starting in about our 40s, we naturally lose our ability to focus on objects up close. If that’s the case for you, you may need reading glasses either now or in the future.
With every passing birthday, we also become more susceptible to eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration (a deterioration of our central vision) and cataracts (a clouding of the lens, which causes blurry vision). Both of these eye conditions can cause a change in your prescription, Dr. Czirr explains.
The good news: The sooner you and your eye doctor talk about your potential risks for different eye conditions, the sooner you’ll learn that there are steps you can take today to prevent them altogether—or at least minimize your chances or delay the onset, she says.
Question #5: What Can I Do to Protect My Vision?
As with other diseases, a lot of eye problems can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle. Smoking, for example, can double your risk of macular degeneration, according to the National Eye Institute. Likewise, smoking and too much exposure to UV light can increase the risk of cataracts.
Along with breaking any nicotine habit, here are some of the best protective measures:
- Keeping harmful UV rays away from your eyes by wearing sunglasses year-round
- Prioritizing sleep so your eye functions have a chance to fully reset
- Eating more eye-friendly foods (such as kale, salmon, and berries) to tame inflammation that’s a contributing factor to many eye diseases
- Being more physically active to improve your circulation and keep your blood pressure and blood sugar in check.
“If your body is healthy, your eyes will be healthy, and vice versa,” says Dr. Czirr.
Question #6: What Can I Do to Maximize the Vision I Have?
It’s true that certain eye diseases, including macular degeneration, can cause an irreversible loss of vision. But optometrists and vision rehabilitation specialists can do a lot to help you maximize your remaining eyesight while warding off future damage to your eyes.
“Depending on what kind of vision loss you have, there are lots of devices and therapies out there that can help you live a normal life,” says Dr. Czirr, who spent part of her residency working with people with low vision (i.e., a loss of eyesight that can’t be reversed).
Optical aids like hand magnifiers and telescopes can help people read small print, she says, and video magnifying systems can enlarge images on computer screen.
“Vision loss can sometimes be a very easy fix,” she says.
Bonus Question for Parents: How Do I Know if My Child’s Vision Is Normal?
While school vision screenings are a good thing, they don’t catch every eye problem. And if your child struggles to read, he or she may have a vision problem.
Often, it’s harder to detect farsightedness in children than it is to detect nearsightedness, says Dr. Czirr.
“Kids who are nearsighted are going to hold things very close to them,” she explains. “They are going to squint when they look at the board and sit close to the TV. If they’re farsighted, however, it can appear that they see fine.”
In other cases, kids only have poor eyesight in one eye and have learned to let their good eye do all the work, she says.
“Sometimes vision problems are missed or get tagged as behavioral issues like ADHD because the child won’t sit down to read,” says Czirr. “But they don’t sit down and read because they can’t see to read, or their eyes aren’t working together as a team, and therefore they are getting headaches. They physically can’t read.”
The American Optometric Association recommends that schoolchildren see an optometrist every year for a complete eye exam. But if you suspect something’s up with your child’s vision, don’t wait for their next eye checkup to raise your concerns with the eye doctor.