If smoke gets in your eye, here's what to do

UW Medicine ophthalmologist and cornea specialist Michele Lee on artificial tears, goggles and staying indoors.

When it gets smoky, UW Medicine ophthalmologist and cornea specialist Michele Lee puts preservative-free tear drops in her eyes at least four to five times a day, up from two times a day. 

The poor air quality from wildfire smoke is especially hard on people like her with dry eyes. The smoke makes the air drier and the tiny particles flying around can irritate and inflame the eye.

 “I even drive to work with goggles,” she said. Wearing wrap-around sunglasses or goggles add another layer of protection to the eye. 

Lee, an acting assistant professor of ophthalmology at the UW School of Medicine, sees patients at the UW Medicine Eye Institute at Ninth and Jefferson and at the Eye Clinic at Harborview Medical Center. She says that when there is smoke in the air, many of her patients who have dry eye conditions need more relief. 

They eye is a complex organ of sight with millions of cells and key structures. It’s the cornea – the clear front window of the eye -- that transmits and focuses light that enters the eye and is most irritated by the smoke.  

The cornea is sensitive to the environment and needs to remain moist to maintain clarity, Lee said. But in a smoky and dry environment, tears evaporate more quickly. She said this can exacerbate eyes with pre-existing dry eye syndrome as well as trigger dry eye symptoms in normal, healthy eyes.

Lee said the best thing we can all do to protect our eyes is to stay indoors while running a humidifier and an air filter.  

If you are experiencing eye irritation, Lee recommends using artificial tears. If you need them just once or twice a day, then she says you can use the tears in a bottle.   

“But don’t use anything that promises to get the ‘red’ out,” she said. “These drops prevent blood flow and oxygen from reaching your eye and can make things worse.”

If you need artificial tears more than four times a day, she recommends using preservative-free tears, which can cost upwards to about $17 to $20.

In addition, Lee said putting eye drops in the fridge or freezer can help calm the eye inflammation even more.

“If you are still not finding relief, you need to see if there is something else going on,” she said. “An irritated eye that does not get better with these conservative measures could be a sign of a vision-threatening eye disease.” 

While many women get dry eye because of fluctuations in estrogen, especially after menopause, several factors contribute to dry eyes. Certain medications, including those for colds, sleeping, allergies, high blood pressure and depression contribute to dry eye. Looking at a computer screen for a long time and using contacts for an extended time can also cause dry eyes. 

-- Bobbi Nodell, bnodell@uw.edu, 206.543.7129

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