Can central heating in winter cause dry eye disease?

03 December 2019

Author: Kate Green

T’is the season for dry eyes


Have you noticed your eyes feeling a bit grittier, drier, redder and tired in recent weeks? Well, you’re not alone and the good news is that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. Winter months are known to bring on dry eyes in people who previously were fine, and to worsen dry eye disease symptoms for people already struggling with them. This is for a number of reasons but, first and foremost, it comes down to the drier air that the winter season brings. Dry eyes are most commonly associated with changes in the weather, affecting around 20% of the UK population.


Often, outdoor winter air is particularly cold and dry which, teamed with an icy wind, is very harsh on our eyes. Our eyes rely on the moisture naturally in the air to help them stay hydrated, so dry eye symptoms typically worsen at this time of year. Dry air is also a fixture indoors over the winter months as people crank up the heating in their homes, further evaporating any moisture in the air. The use of dehumidifiers to dry washing indoors when it’s chilly outside only contributes to this problem.


Aside from – predictably – your eyes feeling dry, symptoms of dry eye disease include:

  • Stringy mucus in eyes
  • Eye fatigue
  • Excessively watery eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Redness
  • Soreness
  • Itchy eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Irritation from wind


How to fight dry eyes


There are lots of things we all do on a daily basis which probably contribute to dry eyes. First and foremost, you could try drinking more water and less coffee and alcohol. The latter two are known to dehydrate you, including drying out your eyes. Smoking has a similar effect, so cutting out cigarettes will also help.


Maintaining your overall eye health is also a good method of keeping dry eyes at bay. Foods rich in omega-3 contribute to good eye health, in turn stimulating tear production. This also goes for foods rich in vitamins A, C and E, such as leafy greens and citrus fruits. Dry eyes can occur because not enough tears are being produced, or because the make-up of the tears isn’t balanced properly, meaning they evaporate too quickly. Changing your diet can help with this, as well as lifestyle changes like sleeping more and reducing your screen time. Digital screens are known to dry your eyes out for a number of reasons, one being that they generally result in less blinking. To combat this, experts encourage you to employ the 20/20/20 rule – “every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds”. This gives your eyes a break and means you’ll blink more, lubricating your eyes.


Why do my eyes water more in winter?


As well as suffering with drier eyes over the colder months, you might have noticed that your eyes are more watery. This, ironically, is actually a symptom of dry eye disease. It might seem a bit strange that watery eyes can signal a problem with your eyes’ hydration, but it’s a real problem. This is because tears are made up of three components: the aqueous layer, mucus layer, and oily layer. Healthy, well-lubricated eyes rely on these three layers being perfectly balanced and when they fall out of balance, dry eye disease takes hold.


If the eye detects that it’s drier than it should be, the tear production glands go into overdrive and produce more of the watery tear component than they should. This can cause your eyes to stream, particularly when hit with an icy blast of wind. Unfortunately, these tear aren’t the right make-up of all three components to do much for eye hydration, and they evaporate too quickly to provide sufficient lubrication. The tears need to contain the oily component to prevent over-evaporation, and enough of the mucus component to ensure that the tears stick to the eyes.


So, to avoid dry eyes in the coming months, consider whether you really need the heating on at home as much as you currently have it. Make some dietary changes, invest in some eye drops, and try not to point the heating vents in the car at your face. It can be a challenging time of year for people who already struggle with dry eye disease but making a few small lifestyle adjustments could help you significantly.

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