How to treat dry eyes caused by wearing a face mask

Here are 5 common mistakes to avoid when wearing a face mask.

Ophthamologists urge eye health during coronavirus pandemic

The proper use of face masks — covering the nose, mouth and chin — is critical to ending the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention in Atlanta and the World Health Organization.

But these coverings aren’t without drawbacks, namely skin irritations, foggy glasses and dry eyes. The latter, ophthamologists say, can pose a health risk.

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“(T)he concern for reducing disease transmission has led to a worldwide increase in face mask utilization,” researchers at the University of Utah wrote in a report published in the journal Ophthalmology and Therapy. “During this period, we have observed a corresponding increase in ocular irritation and dryness among regular mask users. This finding has not been previously described in the literature but has important implications on eye health and infection prevention, as mask use is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

The Centre for Ocular Research & Education also issued an alert to practitioners in August warning of mask-associated dry eye, or MADE.

The Utah researchers noted an increase in dry eye symptoms among people who had never suffered from the condition previously.

“Individuals using masks regularly for an extended duration appear more likely to show symptoms,” they wrote. “This group includes the elderly, immunocompromised, and clinic staff who wear masks almost full-time.”

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Why is this a problem?

“The majority of individuals described an awareness of air blowing upward from the mask into their eyes. This increased airflow likely accelerates the evaporation of the tear film which, when continuous for hours or days, may result in ocular surface irritation or inflammation,” the researchers wrote.

The tear film is an essential barrier against pathogens, and mask use could cause this barrier to evaporate more rapidly. Discomfort from dry eyes might also increase eye rubbing and face touching, leading to the spread of the coronavirus.

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How can you prevent damage to your eyes?

The first step, experts say, is to ensure your mask fits properly. Masks with a pliable nose wire should be used, with attention toward fitting the shape of the wire to prevent air being directed toward the eyes. If you already own masks without nose wires, you can buy adhesive adjustable strips on Amazon that will allow you to fit your mask better.

Next, if you find your eyes are getting dry, consider taking a break from wearing your mask.

“Patients experiencing dry eye symptoms from extended mask wear should take breaks every few hours to remove the mask, allow the eyes to recover, and reapply lubricant eye drops,” the researchers wrote. “Emollient eye drops may be the most effective in preventing symptoms by preserving tear film. Blinking exercises may also be beneficial.”

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At night, or whenever you are home and not needing a mask, place a warm or hot wet washcloth on your eyes for a few minutes.

“This can help stimulate your eyelid’s Meibomian glands—which are responsible for the oily outer layer of your tears—and push more oil out of the glands,” Vivian Shibayama, an optometrist with UCLA Health, told Health. “And, with more oil in your tears, the lubrication on your eyes should be less likely to evaporate as quickly.”

You can also invest in sealed goggles, like Ziena’s moisture chamber eyecups. You can also opt for less fashionable but just as functional swim goggles, like these by Speedo.

"If fit properly, it keeps moisture in and the virus out,” Shibayama said.

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