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Forest Fire Smoke Causing Eye Irritations and Dryness?

20230614 192249 (1) croppedWalking outside lately reminds me of the days when smoking was allowed in bars and restaurants.

Canadian forest fires have been raging for weeks now, lowering the air quality all over the United States and even spreading into Europe. Unfortunately, this has been causing upper respiratory and breathing problems in many people, but we have also noticed an increase in patients with complaints of dry, irritated, red eyes.

It is common this time of the year for patients to visit us for conjunctivitis (pink eye) caused by allergies, resulting in itching and redness. However, the recent noxious smoke in the air seems to be causing more eye inflammation and dry eye problems which are usually not as common in the more humid summer months.

Your tears are not just simple water being secreted onto your eyes but rather a complex concoction of nutrient rich moisturizing components and bacteria fighting agents. This amazing tear recipe is then covered with a thin oily layer secreted by the tiny Meibomian glands along your eyelash line. It is this oil layer that prevents evaporation of the main body of your tear layer.

Noxious chemicals in smoke and other irritants can interact with and disperse this important oil layer and expose the rest of the tear bed allowing it to evaporate. This in turn can cause dry eye symptoms such as burning, stingy, gritty, or sandy sensation.

To further the problem, chemicals in the smoke can also cause an inflammatory response in which the immune system “sends in the troops” causing redness, swelling, itching, and further inflammation. I often refer to this condition as “environmental conjunctivitis” aka pinkeye (I really dislike the generic term pinkeye) which is often confused with simple bacterial conjunctivitis. Unfortunately, the usual treatment from Urgent Care or your family med Doc for any pink eye is an antibiotic eyedrop which in this case could actually increase the inflammation and disperse your own wonderful tears even more.

So, what to do? If you have an eye problem, see an eye doctor! Initial treatment for environmental dry eye and conjunctivitis should be preservative free lubrication drops such as Retaine which will replenish the good stuff in your tears. No Visine, Murine, Clear Eyes or any eye “whitening” products! Extra Strength Pataday is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory which can be very helpful in reducing inflammation and is often recommended to be used in addition to the Retaine. Both of these products are available at our office. If the inflammation is more severe and unresponsive to lubrication, prescription steroid eye drops may also be necessary and can only be prescribed by an eye doctor (Dr. Sarah and Dr. Steve!).

Please let us know if you have any questions and best wishes for a great July 4th!

Dr. Steve