The importance of an annual eye exam cannot be overstated. Not only do they help you keep tabs on any changes in your vision, but they’re a must for detecting the big vision thieves: glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), all of which can cause irreparable harm before you’ve even noticed any vision loss, says Michelle Andreoli, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Medicine and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
What might not be so obvious when it comes to eye health, however, are the everyday habits that affect them. Here are six of the worst habits for your eyes — and what you can do to break each of them.
Bad Habit 1: Smoking
Add this to the always-growing list of reasons to give up smoking for good: Cigarette smoke is more than just irritating to your eyes; research shows it also raises your risk of developing AMD, the eye disease that can blur your central vision. People over age 55 are already at risk for the condition, but an Australian study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that smokers have a nearly four-fold higher risk of late AMD than people who’ve never smoked. What’s more, the smokers in the study developed the condition five years earlier, on average, than the never-smokers. “Smoking reduces the effectiveness of antioxidants and may deplete these levels in the macula,” the small area at the center of the retina that’s necessary to see things in front of you, explains Ashley Brissette, M.D., an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “Cigarette smoke also reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the tiny blood vessels that supply the eye, leading to vision damage.”
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That’s true even if you smoke only occasionally or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, Brissette adds. The good news? Research shows that kicking the habit not only reduces the risk of AMD, but after 20 years, the risk of developing the condition is the same as it is for nonsmokers.
Bad Habit 2: Staring at your smartphone
Your eyes pay a price directly and indirectly when you stare at that tiny screen — or, for that matter, your computer screen or TV — without giving them a break. “The two biggest concerns with onscreen habits boil down to chronic dry eye symptoms and disruption of natural sleep patterns,” Andreoli says. “We’re supposed to blink once every four seconds and in front of the computer we blink about once every eight to 10 seconds. That [difference] may sound insignificant, but blinking is what keeps our eyes lubricated. [If] we aren’t lubricating our eyes sufficiently, we develop dry eye symptoms and that leads to eye strain.” Then there’s the toll of too much screen time on our sleep patterns. “The brightness of the screen and the activity tells our brain it’s daytime, so we have a tendency not to get appropriately tired,” Andreoli says.
Her recommendation: Throughout the day, take a 20-second screen break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. And while you’re in the habit-changing mode, turn off your phone and put the laptop away in the hours leading up to bedtime. If you like to play, say, Words With Friends or return emails late at night, be sure to dim the screen's brightness. You can schedule this to happen automatically using the Night Shift setting on iPhone or Notification Shade on Android.
Bad Habit 3: Not wearing sunglasses
In the same way ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can do a number on your skin, it can also wreak havoc with your vision. Specifically: UV rays can damage the eye’s surface tissues, the cornea and lens. And over time, that damage can lead to cataracts, AMD and cancers of the eye. “You can also develop a sunburn on the eyes called photokeratitis, which can be extremely painful,” Brissette says. To help prevent all of the above, wear sunglasses — and not just during the summer, but every day of the year, even on cloudy days. “Sunglasses protect the eyes in a few ways,” Brissette adds. “It’s hard to apply sunscreen close to the eyes, so sunglasses can act as a physical barrier, blocking UV rays from the eyelids and skin around the eyes. Also, the lenses of the sunglasses have UV protection.” To make sure your eyes are fully protected, check the tag or sticker to make sure they provide 100 percent UV protection. “Some labels say, ‘UV absorption up to 400nm,’ which is the same as 100 percent UV protection,” Brissette says.
Bad Habit 4: Sleeping in your contact lenses
Sure, contacts have gotten more user-friendly, but that doesn’t mean you can simply put them in and forget about them. “The biggest issue is the risk of infection, which can cause permanent scarring of the cornea and loss of vision,” Brissette says. “Bacteria and other debris get trapped between the contact lens and the surface of the cornea, so leaving them in too long or past their expiration [puts you at] high risk for developing an infection.”
Around 1 in 3 contact lens wearers plead guilty to sleeping or napping in their lenses, according to research in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In doing so, they’re upping the risk for contact lens-related eye infections by six- to eight-fold.
“They’ve come a long way in the last few decades, but the safety profile of contacts is dependent on not sleeping in them, swimming in them or showering in them — ever,” Andreoli says. “I suggest daily lenses for most of my patients — put them in in the morning and throw them away at night — because the risk for infection with those types of lenses is very low. With some of the longer-wear lenses, patients have a knack for losing track of how long they’ve worn them. That can cause trouble over time.”
Bad Habit 5: Rubbing your eyes
There’s no real harm in occasionally rubbing your eyes, but if you’re aggressive about it, you run the risk of damaging your cornea, the clear, dome-shaped front surface of your eye. “Some uncommon diseases of the cornea are associated with eye-rubbing,” Andreoli explains. Those include keratoconus, a condition that occurs when your cornea thins out and begins to bulge outward into a cone shape. As a result, your vision is blurry and distorted.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for quick relief from redness, irritation, dryness and grittiness in the eye, it’s OK to rub your eyes. “The occasional rub will milk some tears out of the tear gland, but try not to be overly aggressive or frequent,” Andreoli adds. Better yet, reach for some lubricating eye drops or place a hot washcloth over your eyes.
Bad Habit 6: Sleeping with your makeup on
Every once in a great while it’s OK to fall asleep with your eye makeup on. Make a habit of it, however, and you raise your risk of eye infection, most notably in the form of a stye, a painful lump that grows from the base of your eyelash or under the eyelid. Also important: How you take off your eye makeup.
“Oil-based remover can exacerbate some dry eye symptoms because they deposit a ton of oil in the tears,” Andreoli says. “If patients are starting to notice this, abandon eye makeup remover and use very mild face soap instead.”
Kimberly Goad is a New York–based journalist who has covered health for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest.