Air quality is a major determinant of overall human health. Though often overlooked, poor air quality can cause several health issues. Unfortunately, there’s a general lack of awareness amongst the population about the effects of poor air quality. Poor air quality is primarily caused by air pollutants, which include liquid droplets, solid particles, and gasses.
Apart from respiratory problems, pollution, and poor air quality can cause eye problems. Eyes are very exposed and sensitive to pollutants floating freely in the air.
How Poor Air Quality Affects the Eyes
The eyes have moist tissues that readily absorb air pollutants. Poor air quality affects your eyes in the following ways:
- Air particles trigger conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is an eye condition affecting the conjunctiva, the white part of the eye just inside the eyelids. While chemicals, bacteria, and viruses can cause conjunctivitis, poor air quality is a significant causative factor, especially for those with heightened sensitivity. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include foreign body sensation, itching, light sensitivity, burning, and redness because of rubbing the eye.
Common air contaminants that can cause conjunctivitis include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and high ozone levels.
- Dry air causes chronic dry eye
Severe environmental conditions, especially during strong winds, dust, and arid conditions, can cause dry eyes. Most people exposed to these environmental conditions for prolonged periods develop chronic dry eyes. Living in arid areas or frequent exposure can worsen this condition and make the eye more susceptible to other air irritants.
Dry conditions, dust, and irritants in the air primarily affect the tear film. This causes eye problems like Blepharitis or eyelid inflammation and meibomian gland dysfunction, which is the inflammation of the glands that produce tears.
- Car exhaust gases increase the risk of AMD
AMD (Age-Related Macular Degeneration) affects the macula, or center of the eye, causing blurry vision. The macula is part of the eye responsible for central vision and color. This age-related eye condition develops naturally with advancing age (above 60 years). It can also start early if there’s a familial history of the disease.
Surprisingly, continuous exposure to hazardous air pollutants increases the risk of AMD. A Taiwan study found a close relationship between two major air pollutants and AMD. The gases in question are carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, the primary car exhaust fumes. A recent study found that individuals living in populated areas are 8% more likely to develop AMD.
Exposure to UV rays causes cataracts
The effects of UV exposure go beyond the skin. Typically, the main function of the ozone layer is to protect the earth from damaging UV rays. However, continuous air pollution depletes the protective ozone layer over time. Prolonged exposure to UV rays causes several eye conditions related to poor air quality, such as pingueculae, pterygia, cortical cataracts, and photokeratitis.
Air pollutants restrict blood flow to the eyes
High levels of air pollutants can also restrict normal blood flow into the eye. Blocking or restricting blood flow to the eye causes serious eye conditions, such as glaucoma, retinal vein occlusion, and eye stroke.
Smoke causes trachoma
Smoke from cooking or burning fire at home is a common household air pollutant. Several studies have shown that prolonged use of wood or charcoal smoke increases the risk of developing trachoma or eye scarring. Trachoma is among the top infectious causes of blindness.
How to Protect Your Eyes
While you can’t avoid the effects of air pollution completely, the following tips can protect your eyes from its harmful effects:
- Routinely check weather forecasts for air quality – you should check your local weather forecasts every time before heading out. If the air quality in your region appears diluted, consider rescheduling your activity or using protective eye equipment.
- Cover your eyes – eye glasses can protect your eyes from most air pollutants. Those with overly sensitive eyes should consider wrapping protective clothing around their eyeglasses for added protection.
- Use eyeglasses instead of contact lenses – while contact lenses are prescribed to improve vision, eyeglasses are an excellent alternative. Contact lenses can trap particles in the eye, increasing the risk of developing conjunctivitis and dry eye syndrome. If you can’t do without contact lenses, wear them minimally. You should also observe good contact lens hygiene.
- Apply eye drops – you should lubricate your eyes to keep them moist and reduce dry eye symptoms.
- Increase indoor humidity – a humidifier increases moisture in your home and prevents dry eye syndrome.
- Blink frequently – frequent blinking keeps your eyes moist and nourishes the eyes.
- See an optometrist – you should contact your optometrist if you have experienced recurring irritation and inflammation.
The Bottom Line
Human eyes remain open, making them exposed to several air pollutants. Though often disregarded, air quality significantly affects your eyes. Short-term effects of poor air quality include itching, watery eyes, eye allergies, and blurred vision. Prolonged exposure to pollutants causes dry eye syndrome, cataracts, AMD, and trachoma.