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Relieving Chronic Dry Eye

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Air Pollution Increases Risk for Dry Eye Syndrome

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

Air pollution is known to aggravate lung and breathing problems, but it can also wreak havoc on your eyes.

Los Angeles

In the United States, air pollution tends to be dominated by ozone and particle pollution like truck exhaust. Most people associate lung and breathing problems with this kind of air pollution–with good reason. Air pollution can aggravate asthma and decrease your lung’s ability to function properly. But air pollution can also wreak havoc on your eyes, causing dry eye syndrome.

Dry eye syndrome occurs when your eyes can’t produce enough tears to lubricate the surface of your eye, and research shows people living in areas with high levels of air pollution are at increased risk for this condition.

How Pollution Affects Your Eyes

Pollution can dry out the surface of your eye, also known as the ocular surface. When your eyes are too dry, they may sting or burn. You might experience blurred vision, or you may notice some sensitivity to light. It’s very uncomfortable at best and painful at worst.

Unfortunately, a lot of people living in the United States are at risk for dry eye syndrome as a result of exposure to air pollution. The American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air" report states that 120 million people live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution, a decrease of more than 17 million people from the prior report. Still, that’s nearly 36% of people living in the U.S.

Where Pollution is the Worst

Currently, the pollution levels are highest in several metropolitan areas in California, according to the report. The Los Angeles area ranks at the top of the list for cities with the highest levels of ozone, while short-term particle pollution is the highest in Bakersfield. Bakersfield displaced the Fresno area as worst for year-round particle pollution too.

But don’t rest too easy if you don’t live in one of those areas. Many, if not most, major cities have elevated levels of air pollution. And if your lungs are at risk, your eyes are, too.

Seeking Relief for Dry Eyes

If you live in an area with high air pollution levels, watch out for the signs of a developing case of dry eye syndrome. If you notice your eyes feel dry, itchy, and scratchy, try using some preservative-free eye drops to keep your eyes moisturized. Use a humidifier in your bedroom at night to add more moisture to the air, and get a high-quality air filter in your home to screen out some of that air pollution.

If you continue to experience dry eye symptoms, talk to your doctor. There are some prescription options that can help, and it’s important to know there are steps to take for relief.

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  1. Abelson MB, et al. Dry Eye: Beyond the Usual Suspects. Review of Ophthalmology. May 10,
  2. Boyd K. Remedies to Reduce Dry Eye Symptoms. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  3. Dry Eye. Mayo Clinic.
  4. Herz NL. How Can I Tell What’s Causing My Dry Eye? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  5. Key Findings: The State of the Air 2022. American Lung Association.
  6. Pribis M. How air pollution affects the ocular surface. Optometry Times. October 12, 2018; 10 (10).
  7. Zhong JY, et al. Association between Dry Eye Disease, Air Pollution and Weather Changes in
    Taiwan. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
    2018;15(10):2269. Published 2018 Oct 16.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jul 2
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