The Winter season begins December 21 and ends March 19, but Coloradans experience shorter days, colder temperatures, and significant snowstorms long before this official start date. We take steps to winterize our homes, cars, and wardrobes, but we rarely consider how winter affects our vision and eye health.
Colorado’s mean elevation is the highest of all 50 states at 6,800 feet. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the views of our 59 peaks that sit at 14,000 feet or higher throughout the year and our largest city sits one mile above sea level at 5,280 feet. All of that altitude paired with the winter elements creates a unique set of challenges in protecting eye health throughout the season including snow blindness and dry eyes.
Increased risk of snow blindness (aka arc eye or photokeratitis)
Snow blindness occurs when the cornea gets too much UV light causing a sunburn. Symptoms of snow blindness can take hours to present themselves and include:
- eye color
- blurred vision
- temporary loss of vision
Enjoying life and winter activities at higher elevations means that we experience higher UV exposure and that translates to a higher risk of snow blindness. Even on overcast days UV rays can still penetrate cloud coverage and that beautiful blanket of snow intensifies all sun exposure through reflection. The intensified UV exposure in winter due to snow reflection at higher altitudes is generally why we see more cases of photokeratitis in the winter.
Prevent snow blindness by:
- Polarized sunglasses for driving and daily outdoor activities.
- A wide brimmed hat as an alternative if you’re without eye protection for a period of time, but it won’t protect your eyes from snow, water, or sand reflecting UV rays from the ground.
- High quality tinted goggles for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding because goggles provide full protection around the eyes when reflective UV exposure is high. This also reduces the risk of dry eyes.
- Wearing eye protection at all times when outside and even during overcast periods.
- Individuals who are experiencing photokeratitis should see their optometrist for help throughout the painful healing process.
Winter Dry Eyes
Colorado is a semi-arid to very-arid state. Cold air consists of less water than warm air making dry eyes more common in the winter.
Symptoms of dry eyes often include:
- A sensation of a foreign body in the eye
It’s important to understand that the use of space heaters and woodburning stoves/fireplaces can further dry out the air around you, which ultimately impacts the moisture levels in your eyes. To combat dry eyes, Colorado optometrists recommend:
- Drinking plenty of water throughout the winter season and year-round.
- Using over-the-counter artificial tears.
- Wearing 100% UV blocking eyeglasses or goggles when outdoors.
- Using humidifiers in the home and/or office.
- Reducing the amount of time that you wear contact lenses.
- Avoid smoke from cigarettes or indoor/outdoor fires as smoke can increase irritation.
- Point heating vents in your car away from your face or use seat warmers to reduce high heat airflow.
If you think you need further treatment for either of these conditions, contact your optometrist or click here to find an optometrist near you.