How Weather Changes Lead to Eye Problems

Dry eyes in winter, itchy eyes in spring — the list of eye problems that may accompany each season goes on. Here’s your guide to protecting your vision year-round.

Woman struggling with umbrella.

Nadine Chan, a New York City–based yoga instructor, says the weather takes a toll on her social life. You might think she’s referring to frizzy hair, rain-soaked suede pumps, and sweaty pits. Nope. For Chan, it’s all about her eye problems.

“I dread restaurants with outdoor seating,” says Chan, who has dry eye syndrome, a condition that affects millions (especially women age 50 and older) whose eyes aren’t able to maintain a healthy coating of tears. “I always have to be the one who says, ‘No, I can’t sit outside because it hurts my eyes.’”

In low humidity, her eyes feel dry and scratchy. During allergy season, she faces itchy eyes and tearing. And in bright sunlight? “Forget it. I wear sunglasses constantly,” she says.

Chan’s reactions might be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but she’s definitely not alone. Robert Africano, O.D., an optometrist with North Carolina Primary Vision Care Associates, located inside an America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Charlotte, N.C., says that grappling with swings in the weather is no joke for people who suffer from dry eye syndrome.

Similar reactions are also common among contact lens wearers and people with eye allergies, which aren’t always tied to nasal or seasonal allergies.

“Any one of us might notice something going on with our eyes in harsh weather, as the seasons change, or if we’re outside all day without sunglasses,” says Dr. Africano, “but some people are definitely more sensitive to the changes.”

What’s more, he says, the bothersome symptoms only get worse as we get older. Tear production naturally slows down and the lens in your eye becomes less flexible with each passing year, he explains.

Read on to find out how different kinds of weather may be causing your eye problems.

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Eye Problems in Winter: When It’s Hard to Stay Hydrated

As the temperature drops, the waterworks kick in. Why? Cold winds and bone-dry air leave your eyes parched. To make up for the dryness, your tear ducts go into overdrive, sometimes to the point that it’s difficult to see.

“Imagine pointing a fan directly at your face from a close distance,” Dr. Africano says. “It’s not hard to understand how the tear film will dry out pretty quickly once you turn that fan on.”

The fix can be as simple as keeping eye drops handy on chilly days and running a humidifier in your home or work space to put moisture back into the air.

When you go outside, wraparound sunglasses can protect your eyes from the sun and wind. Sun reflecting off of bright snow more than doubles your UV exposure and can “burn” your eyes, Dr. Africano says. Much like with a sunburn on your skin, your eyes will look red, feel sore, and become more sensitive to light.

If you are in extreme conditions, you may need winter safety goggles that have specialized lenses designed to withstand extremely low temperatures and resist fogging. (Look for the ANSI Z87 certification if you also need impact or other safety protections.)

Chilly temps can be particularly challenging if you wear contact lenses. The lens material limits the flow of oxygen to your eyes, Dr. Africano says. When the air outside is super dry, your eyes will struggle to make the right amount of tears.

Ask your eye doctor if you’re a good candidate for more porous, breathable contacts that are designed to let more oxygen in to keep your eyes better hydrated. On truly bitter-cold and blustery days, you might be more comfortable switching to glasses.

Eye Problems in Spring and Fall: When Allergies Attack

These milder seasons are great times to be outside—unless allergies leave you with swollen and inflamed eyes.

Spring and fall both generate pollen and other allergens that can make your eyes become red and feel watery and itchy—even if you don’t experience the sniffles, sneezing, or wheezing that are the hallmarks of seasonal allergies.

“The thing about eye allergies,” says Dr. Africano, “is that a lot of people don’t know they have them, because they associate allergies with nasal symptoms.”

Aside from the annoying urge to rub your eyes, Africano says the biggest allergy-season eye health risk is allergic conjunctivitis. This is a common, inflammatory response that can be triggered when your body works overtime to purge the pollen. The result looks strikingly similar to pink eye: burning, redness, hard-to-ignore itchiness, and puffy morning eyes. Fortunately, it’s not contagious.

Here’s how to find some relief. First, when you wake up in the morning, start with a cold cloth over your eyes to bring down the puffiness. Ask your eye doctor about trying an allergy medicine with an antihistamine to relieve your symptoms. And consider using eye drops during the course of the day to keep your eyes moist.

“If you head to the drugstore without some guidance from your eye doctor, you’re going to be quickly overwhelmed by the choices,” says Dr. Africano. “You might also pick up something that could make your symptoms worse. See your eye doctor for a proper recommendation.”

If you need to do some work in the yard or be outside for longer periods of time, wear wraparound sunglasses or safety glasses—both cover more of your eye area to better block out irritants.

Eye Problems in Summer: When the Sun Is High—and So Is Your Risk 

You wear sunglasses on sunny summer days—great! Blocking those ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays can protect your eyes from cataracts, macular degeneration, retinal damage, and even skin cancer around the eyes.

The problem is that most people don’t realize that those rays can still do major damage on cloudy and rainy days, especially during the summer, when the sun is particularly strong.

Diseases like cataracts and eye cancers can take many years to develop, but each time you’re outside without protection, you could be inflicting damage that adds to your risk of these serious disorders, says Dr. Africano. Here’s his advice:  

  • Invest in a pair of 100 percent UVA- and UVB-blocking sunglasses, and keep them near your car or house keys so that you’re less likely to forget them. Wraparound styles offer the most protection.
  • Don’t forget the rest of the family: Everyone is at risk, including children.
  • Apply sunscreen around your eyes and eyelids, both of which are very sensitive to sun damage and skin cancer.
  • Remember: Even if you wear contact lenses with UV protection, they might not block 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays, so you’ll still benefit from wearing sunglasses. Plus, they’ll give you some cover from wind and cold air and help protect the skin around your eyes.

Bottom line: You wouldn’t go outside in shorts when it’s snowing and 10 below zero. So why would you leave the house without considering the impact the weather could have on your eyes?