During quarantine, you might find yourself bouncing from computer to phone while working, then to FaceTime calls and social media check-ins for catching up, and then ending the day with TV until bedtime. Without realizing it, we spend our entire waking hours stuck to one screen or another.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, our devices keep us connected more than ever before. A new study conducted by Alcon discovered that nearly 80 percent of Americans reported their screen time increasing during the pandemic. All that time staring at our devices is putting extra demand on our eyes — which can lead to some potentially serious side effects, like dry eye disease.
Considering how unrealistic it would be for us to completely get rid of our technology, we spoke with Dr. Scott Schachter, OD, a Global Ambassador for the Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society, founder of Ocular Surface Academy, and leading expert in dry eye syndrome for over 10 years to discuss dry eye issues — and how to prevent them.
Why do devices cause dry eye?
If you compare reading a chapter of a book on paper versus reading a chapter on a device like an iPad, the blink rate will go down on the latter due to cognitive demand.
“The difference between the device and paper is that for some reason, you’ll experience more partial blinks while using the device,” says Dr. Schachter. “We blink less completely more often when we’re on a device.”
What’s so bad about partial blinks?
It turns out that partial blinks can lead to quite a number of problems. “The anterior part of the eye is exposed, so that can lead to damage [and] cause the saltiness of the tears to increase, also known as hyperosmolarity, which can trigger an inflammatory reaction,” Dr. Schachter explains. “In addition, there are oil glands in the eyelid and every time you blink and the lids meet, oil is pulled out and spread along the surface of the eye, which is what holds the tears together. So, because you’re not pulling that out, the tears break up faster.”
When we blink less and only partially, the oils of the Meibomian glands in our eyelids do not get distributed properly. The oil that doesn’t get pulled out instead becomes thicker, and when it becomes thicker the glands get obstructed, which can ultimately cause them to atrophy.
The Importance of Tears
When we think of dry eye, we expect dry, gritty, scratchy feeling eyes. But because tear film becomes unstable as a result of dry eye disease, fluctuating vision is actually one of the top symptoms.
“The impact that the tear film has on vision is profound,” Dr. Schachter tells us. He suggests using an artificial tear drop like Alcon Systane Hydration Eye Drops (Buy on Amazon, $16) to increase the tear film breakup over time. “The ideal time for your tears to break apart after you blink is at least seven seconds,” he says. “By using the artificial tears four time a day you’re going to extend the life of the tear film, which maintains the vision.”
Dr. Schachter suggests that even if you’re not experiencing symptoms of dry eye, you should still be taking precautions. “I tell my patients to apply artificial tears 4 times a day. Being proactive rather than reactive tends to keep you out of trouble.” And, of course, this hydration is a must for patients who already have symptoms of dry eyes. “You absolutely find a reduction in symptoms.”
Artificial tears can even reduce saltiness and control osmolarity, which is what triggers the inflammatory response.
Evaluate Your Lifestyle
As far as lifestyle changes go, Dr. Schachter suggests checking your phone’s screen time data to see which apps you’re prone to linger on the longest. “Prioritize your time and recognize that you may need to make some changes,” he says. Exposure to screen time has also been shown to affect sleep, which is another reason to monitor our overall engagement.
Dr. Schachter also shared a jaw-dropping study: “A group of 900 subjects aged 7 to 12 was evaluated and 60 of them had dry eye disease — so they had signs and symptoms of dry eye.” The researchers then split the kids with dry eyes into two groups of 30, taking phones away from one for a whole month. “At the end of the month, their symptoms went to absolute zero.” Clearly, phones play a big role in dry eye issues at any age.
It’s also important to remember the 20, 20, 20 rule: “Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away, for 20 seconds, and consciously blink,” Dr. Schachter explains.
Dry Eye Disease Dangers
“Studies show that if you read for 30 minutes silently and you have dry eye disease, you’ll read 28 words-per-minute slower,” Dr. Schachter tells us. This cognitive delay can cause some seriously dangerous troubles outside of leisurely reading. “You’ll also react more slowly on the freeway because you see things less quickly.”
And not only that, “Depression and dry eye go hand in hand. It’s so very important to diagnose this early,” says Dr. Schachter. “In a study, it was discovered that [some] patients with dry eye disease would exchange three years of their life to not have dry eyes.”
Keep Regular Doctor Visits
Since everyone is at risk for developing this disease, diagnosing it early is the key to resolving it. “Artificial tears applied 4 times day are a great starting point, but giving your eyes a break and getting them regularly checked is just as important,” Dr. Schachter emphasizes. “As vision doctors, it’s our job to give you the best vision possible.”
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