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7 ways winter can affect your eye health

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Article written by Dr Sarah Brewer

Date published 28 April 2022

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We all know we need to protect our eyes from UV light in the summer, but how should we look after our eye health in the winter?

Winter sunshine

If you plan on making the most of New Zealand's snowy slopes, take care to give your eyes the proper protection. UV light can be eight times stronger because of the way it reflects off the snow and/or ice, hitting your eyes from below as well as above. 

This kind of exposure to sunlight can damage parts of the eye, increasing your long-term risk of various conditions. According to the New Zealand Association of Optometrists, "Accumulated UV exposure can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness), cancer and pterygium (a fleshy growth on the cornea). Even short bursts of unprotected UV exposure can lead to pain, irritation and sensitivity to light." They advise having your eyes examined regularly, as "the earlier UV-related conditions such as macular degeneration are detected, the better the change of effective treatment."1

Health Navigator New Zealand recommends wearing sunglasses, checking the label (or asking the retailer) to ensure they meet the New Zealand Standard, AS/NZS 106.1:2016.2

Less exercise

An inactive lifestyle can be a factor in several eye conditions, particularly for the over-60s. Doing some physical activity (try a brisk walk daily) can help reduce the risk of sight loss caused by high blood pressure and diabetes, so don't let the wet winter months (and the lure of a boxset) win out.

More screen time

If you are using a screen all day at work and then coming home to more screen time (which we do more often in the winter), your eyes can feel the strain.

Research – including a study from the University of Auckland – consistently shows that we blink less when using a computer, close reading or watching any sort of blue screen, from a tablet to the television.3 A reduction in blinking means a decrease in tear production, leaving your eyes feeling scratchy and dry.

The general recommendation to look away from the screen every 20 minutes for 20 seconds (to give your eye muscles a break) is supported by Health Navigator New Zealand.4

Overhead view of a woman drinking coffee looking at phone

Most of us spend more time looking at screens during the winter, but this can have a negative impact on our eye health.

Dry eyes

Although much of New Zealand has a temperate climate, if you live in the inland alpine areas of the South Island, you will be well aware of temperatures as low as -10°C in winter.

Many of us rely on heating systems to stay cosy, but they're guilty of drying out the air, and in turn dry out your eyes. Lubricating eye drops are often a good place to start, as well as keeping well hydrated with plenty of fluids like herbal tea or warm water with honey and lemon.

Research has also shown that omega 3 can help reduce inflammation and dry eyes, so look to increase your intake of oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, eggs and walnuts.5

A study that asked eye professionals in New Zealand and Australia about their practices found that "optometrists routinely make clinical recommendations about diet and omega-3 fatty acids."6

Lower light levels

More hours of darkness is also a challenge for our eyes, particularly when driving. Our pupils have to dilate to take in more light, but a dilated pupil is less able to change focus between near and far objects, decreasing your depth of vision and making things look blurrier.

Furthermore, as we get older the muscles in the iris that control the size of the pupil do not respond as well to light changes, which means you see less well in the dark after being in the light.

The advice is to be extra vigilant when driving in darkness, and to reduce your speed.

The winter sun is also at a lower angle, making the light it casts dimmer and causing more glare. Take some extra time to clean the windscreen of your car, inside and out. A dirty windscreen can scatter the light of incoming headlights and intensify glare.

Colds and 'flu

Aside from the usual cold or 'flu symptoms, like a headache, sore throat and sneezing, your eyes can become watery and feel sore, itchy and irritated. They might also look red and inflamed.

Firstly, resist the urge to rub your eyes. Instead, splash them with cold water or apply a cold compress over closed eyes for a couple of minutes. Use a flannel soaked in cold water or try steeping two chamomile tea bags, then cool them in the refrigerator. Alternatively, eye drops can also work well.

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Less fruit and vegetables

According to Health Navigator New Zealand, 1 in 3 people in New Zealand falls short of the daily fruit and vegetable recommendations. Although it might be easy to top up with summer salads, during the winter months you may need to make more conscious decisions.

Fruit and vegetables contain essential nutrients for eye health, including the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. These have been shown to act like 'nature's sunglasses'7 and even help slow the progression of some degenerative eye conditions like AMD.8

These yellow and orange pigments are found in high concentrations in the eye, particularly the macula (the small central portion of the retina) and also in orange-yellow fruits and vegetables and leafy greens (including corn, squash, orange and yellow peppers, carrots, mango, honeydew melon and kale). Egg yolks and sweetcorn are good sources of both nutrients, and you can find lutein and zeaxanthin in supplement form.

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About Dr Sarah Brewer

Dr Sarah Brewer holds degrees in Natural Sciences, Surgery and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. Having worked as a GP and hospital doctor, Dr Sarah now holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey and specialises in nutrition. She is also an award-winning writer and author.