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Most of us do not think about sunglasses in winter, especially in cloudy, cold days. We tend to connect the need for sunglasses with summer, heat or inviting beaches. Well, our eyes can suffer more harm during the harsh days of the cold season, and the reasons are many, indoors and outdoors. It is therefore vitally important to understand these threats and take all measures to protect our peepers. Sunglasses play a key role here.

Did you know that more than 90 per cent of ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate through the clouds? Even when it’s overcast, you are exposed to UV rays and the eyes are probably the most sensitive organs to the damage of excessive UV light. In winter we get the added exposure of reflected UV rays by the snow. New snow has an almost 100 per cent reflection of UV light, so the eyes get a double dose of UV rays – directly from the sun and from the snow, below. Have sunglasses on you at all times, especially when driving or during outdoor activities. Look for glasses with a minimum 400 UV protection since they block both UVA and UVB types of radiation. Wraparound sunglasses provide better eye protection, while ski goggles are even better since they protect against cold air, wind and glare.

Why do we need to protect our eyes against UV light – you might ask? In the short term, excessive UV light exposure can cause a painful condition called photokeratitis, or “snow blindness”. Basically the eyes are sunburned. The cornea is inflamed, the eyes look red, are sore and very sensitive to light. Oftentimes this requires treatment to prevent further damage. But the most dangerous effect is long term – too much exposure to UV light triggers the formation of cataract, which is the clouding of the lens in the eye. This leads to blindness and permanent eye damage. Importantly, cataracts are the result of cumulative damage along the years, so even if you might not notice anything for a while, the damage is going on for years until evident. Cataracts are the main cause of blindness in the world and affect over 3.2 million Canadians! That is about 10 per centof our population. Why can’t people understand the importance of protecting their eyes at all times?

There are other negative factors affecting our dear eyes in winter. Extreme cold can be an issue, even if our eyes have built-in defences such as tearing up and squinting. Exposure to cold wind, especially, can cause eye pain, blurred vision and freezing of the cornea (front of the eyes). That is why I prefer to wear ski goggles with UV protection built in, even if I do not ski, when outside in a cold, windy day. The goggles protect not only my eyes but also my face and skin, preventing wrinkles as well.

The indoor dryness due to the hot air or heating systems does not help the eyes at all. Actually, the most common eye complaint in winter is dryness, and a burning or itchy sensation. These are due to the lower humidity levels inside your home or office. Don’t neglect these, over time, dryness can cause blurred vision and even damage of the cornea, which can lead to blurriness.
So what can we do to minimize the negative impact of cold winter on our eyes?

Good protection for the eyes can prevent or slow down the harmful effects of UV rays or dryness and cold air. Beyond wearing good sunglasses or googles you can also:

– Moisten your eyes with special sterile eye drops, lubricating the eyes a few times a day. Drink plenty of fluids, herbal teas, soups, and use an air humidifier in the house or office. Try sitting farther away from heat sources. Hydrate from inside and outside.
– Blink more. It may sound strange, but sometimes, when we concentrate on a visual task using a computer, we tend not to blink as often, which can exacerbate winter dryness.
– Eat more fruits, vegetables, use supplements with antioxidant properties. All plants contain beneficial substances with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can also help the eyes. Eat more fish, avocados, nuts, flax! A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids could help alleviate dry eyes. Omega-3 fatty acids are an effective treatment for dry eye syndrome, according to many scientific studies. Mackerel, tuna, salmon and trout are good sources of beneficial essential oils. A particularly useful antioxidant and supplement is astaxanthin- the red carotenoid from sea organisms such as krill, shrimp and wild salmon. This substance is extremely powerful to alleviate inflammation and can also penetrate the eyes better than most antioxidants!
– Last but not least – Rest more!