More than eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no doubt you’ve heard the repeated recommendations to wear a mask. Masks are a proven way to help prevent the spread of the virus. But for some people, they come with a side effect: dry eye.

“We’ve been getting more complaints of dry eye in 2020,” says SSM Health Davis Duehr Dean optometrist Dr. Wendy Arrington. “People wearing poorly-fitting masks are especially vulnerable, because more air is leaking out, and one place that air goes is up to your eyes.”

Dry eye is a common condition that occurs when tears aren’t providing proper lubrication to the eyes. The following symptoms can range from annoying to incredibly uncomfortable:

- Stinging/burning of the eyes

- Feeling like something is in your eye

- Red eyes or irritated eyes, especially when in the wind or near smoke

- Blurred vision

- Strings of mucus in or around the eyes

- It is painful to wear contact lenses

- You have lots of tears in your eyes. (This may sound odd, but your eyes make more tears when they are irritated by dry eye.)

Another factor in increasing cases is the lifestyle changes made since COVID-19.

“We seem to be doing more on digital devices because we’re staying home more often,” says Dr. Arrington. “This adds to dryness due to reduced blink rate and incomplete blink closure.”

Dr. Arrington says over-the-counter artificial tears can help many people from dry eye symptoms. She also stresses taking frequent breaks when looking at digital screens.

– every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. And lastly, keep wearing your mask, but make sure it fits. Some people benefit from taping their mask across the top of the nose to prevent air leakage.

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