En español | The pandemic hasn’t been good for our eyesight.
It’s not just the amount of time we spend staring at computer screens. As we pared back our doctor visits, eye care was one of the first priorities to be slashed: There were an estimated 44 percent fewer ophthalmology visits and procedures done in 2020 than in 2019 — one of the biggest dips for any medical subspecialty, according to analysis from Strata Decision Technology.
That’s a potential problem. “The eyes are built to last a long time,” says Stephen Christiansen, M.D., chief of ophthalmology at Boston Medical Center. But they need care. So as the global COVID-19 crisis heads into its second year, here are some steps you can take today to protect your eyes and equip your home in a vision-friendly way.
By the Front Door
1. Comfortable walking shoes. Keep it moving, people. Low to moderate exercise for as little as three hours per week is associated with as much as a 41 percent lower likelihood of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. In addition, a study of those diagnosed with glaucoma showed that taking an extra 5,000 steps a day slows the rate of vision loss by 10 percent. Exercise reduces your risks of high blood pressure and diabetes, diseases that damage blood vessels that nourish the eyes, which can eventually compromise your vision or lead to blindness.
COVID-19 and Your Eyes
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, typically infects you via your mouth and nose, but your eyes might also be a portal. Research has found that viral particles can land on the conjunctiva (the clear tissue covering the white part of your eye) and begin to replicate. “In a small proportion of patients, conjunctivitis — pink eye — can be one of the earliest signs of COVID-19,” explains ophthalmologist Stephen Christiansen, M.D.
Be on the lookout for associated symptoms, like a fever. And be careful around others; tears themselves can be infected with the coronavirus. After blotting your eyes, properly dispose of any tissues and, yes, wash your hands (again).
If you’re at especially high risk, or if you’re entering a high-risk area such as a hospital, it might be worthwhile to invest in a pair of protective goggles; be sure to wash them after use.
2. A great pair of sunglasses. UV light from the sun can damage the proteins in the lens of the eye, contributing to cataract formation. You need protection — even in January.
“Wear sunglasses in the summer and winter, whether it’s cloudy or sunny, even in the car,” advises Stephanie Marioneaux, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Choose the right ones by buying a pair with “100% UV” or “UV400” protection, according to the sticker on the lens. You’ll find them at all prices. “I’ve even seen these at discount dollar stores,” she says. The AAO also recommends oversize sunglasses for maximum coverage.
If you wear glasses but don’t want to buy a separate pair of prescription sunglasses, a money-saving option is clip-on shades that attach to your existing frame. These can be purchased online for as little as $25.
In the Garage and Yard
3. Sturdy safety goggles. Whether you’re drilling or sawing, or just mowing your lawn, you’ll want to wear eye protection, notes Rachel Bishop, M.D., a staff clinician at the National Eye Institute. “It doesn’t take much — a shard of metal or a wood splinter — to lodge in your eye and cause an injury that could have been entirely avoidable.” Make it a habit to pop on a pair of well-fitting safety goggles or protective glasses when doing this kind of work, inside or out.
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In the Bedroom
4. Amsler eye chart. While an at-home test isn’t a substitute for an in-person comprehensive eye exam, you can use it to monitor how your eyes are doing. This chart is a grid with a black dot in the center. “The Amsler grid is an extremely helpful tool for patients with age-related macular degeneration,” notes Paras Shah, M.D., an ophthalmologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem in Glenview, Illinois. AMD is one of the leading causes of vision loss, and it has no cure. But with proper treatment, its progress can be significantly slowed. Taking the at-home “test” can help you detect if there’s a change in one eye; you can alert your doctor accordingly. The chart is available at macular.org/amsler-chart.
5. Snellen eye chart. The Snellen chart is the good old eye chart that you know and love. The AAO website (aao.org) provides a chart for adults, plus how-to instructions. After printing it out, hang it on a wall with no windows. Sitting 10 feet away, with the grid at eye level, read the chart, covering one eye at a time. If the results are concerning, make an appointment with your eye doctor.
In the Bathroom
6. Artificial tears. Tear production naturally diminishes as you get older, Christiansen says. The problem is, tears are what keep the conjunctiva, the thin membrane on the surface of the eye, moist. “Once this membrane becomes dry, it loses its protective function and the result is inflammation,” he adds. Your eyes may become watery as your body tries to overcompensate for the dryness.
For most patients, over-the-counter artificial tears are all that’s needed, says Christiansen. Eye drops with preservatives tend to be much cheaper, but some people find they cause irritation. Preservative-free eye drops are often packaged in single-use vials. Try both to see which works best for you, he recommends.
In the Home Office
7. Eye-comfort lights. If harsh lighting conditions trigger headaches, try using softer-light or LED bulbs, which dim without flickering, strobing, causing glare or making a humming noise. Set up your computer so you’re about 25 inches away from the screen, and position it so you’re looking slightly down at it instead of straight ahead, suggests the AAO. Remember to give yourself occasional breaks from endless Zoom meetings by following the 20/20/20 rule: Turn your head every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
8. Good computer readers. Talk to your ophthalmologist about getting a pair of computer glasses that are specially designed to help reduce eyestrain. The doctor will calculate the distance you sit from your computer and give you a prescription for single-vision glasses designed for intermediate-distance viewing. “They’re easier to use for prolonged computer use, compared with bifocals or trifocal lenses,” Marioneaux says. There’s no need, however, to invest in special glasses designed to block blue light. According to Marioneaux, the evidence-based medicine does not currently support the use of blue blockers.