Even if you do not live in an area near where wildfires often spring up, your eye health can be endangered by smoke in other country parts. Smoke from wildfires is primarily composed of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, particulate matter and other organic and trace minerals.

Particulate matter is the main pollutant of concern from wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke can cause several eye problems, including eye inflammation, eye irritation, allergic reactions, dry eyes and impaired vision.

How Does Wildfire Smoke Harm Your Eyes?

In reality, smoke particles are miniscule foreign bodies in your eyes. They dissolve into your tears and coat the surface of your eye, causing eye inflammation and irritation.

Burning, stinging, teary and red eyes hallmark irritated eyes. Particulate matter from wildfire smoke may also cause allergic reactions in your eyes and in your skin.wildfire near house

Wildfire smoke can also cause contact lens discomfort. Smoke and tiny particles can get lodged beneath contact lenses and cause inflammation and pain.

If you are already afflicted with a pre-existing eye condition such as blepharitis, dry eyes or allergic conjunctivitis, you may be more susceptible to the stinging and burning eye pain caused by smoke from wildfires.

Incessant exposure to smoke can also cause dry eyes. Your tears are made up of water, lipids and proteins. A certain balance of the components is needed for optimal eye comfort and proper vision. If that balance is disrupted, symptoms including stinging, excessive watering, filmy vision and redness can occur. These are symptoms of dry eyes.

Wildfire smoke results in changes to the make-up of your tears. First, the gases present in smoke can increase the evaporation rate of the water components in your tears.

Second, particulate matter and other toxins in wildfire smoke can increase protein production. All these factors can cause dry eyes. Severe dryness can cause damage to the corneal surface cells, leading to impaired visual acuity.

If exposure to wildfire smoke is extensive, some people may experience temporary vision changes. Wildfire smoke can worsen the inflammatory response on your conjunctiva and promote conjunctival scarring. Conjunctival scarring can lead to trichiasis, a common eyelid condition when your eyelashes grow back towards your eye, touching the conjunctiva or cornea.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms that show up when you are exposed to wildfire smoke may include:

  • Stinging eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Burning eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Dry eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Temporary blurry vision
  • Grittiness, or the feeling of having an eyelash or grain of dirt in your eye
  • Eye allergies

Does Wildfire Smoke Damage Eyes Long-Term?

Little is known about the longer-term risks to your eyes from exposure to wildfire smoke or the damage chronic, or repeated exposure, can cause. However, people living in areas with high air pollution levels, like China, have a significantly increased chance of developing dry eye disease. If you already have dry eyes, exposure to smoke and other pollutants only worsen the condition's symptoms.

There is also the possibility that pollutants from smoke that enter your bloodstream can affect the blood supply to the eye, thus impacting the fine vessels within your eye. Research suggests that the high air pollution levels in Taiwan may increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration resulting from the aforementioned factor. More research is necessary to determine the long-term damage to the eyes that wildfire smoke can cause.

Treatment

Eye doctors recommend simple, self-treatment options that you can administer to provide relief from the symptoms. If you have pre-existing eye conditions, the application of over-the-counter artificial tears can help alleviate the symptoms until the smoke dissipates.

Other treatment options include applying ointment, cold compresses, and cleaning your eyelids frequently. If the symptoms worsen, eye doctors can recommend more aggressive treatment options, including either nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or steroids.

How to Protect Your Eyes

The first step in protecting your eyes from smoke is moving away from the environment as soon as possible. You should limit outdoor exposure when the smoke pollution is highest, especially if you have a pre-existing eye condition. You can improve indoor air quality by using an air filter and purifier when staying indoors.

It is also beneficial to wear protective eyewear when you cannot avoid the wildfire smoke to slow the stream of smoke going into your eyes. Eye doctors also recommend proper contact lens hygiene. Ensure that you clean and replace your contact lenses regularly.

FAQs

  • Does wildfire smoke affect eyesight?

    If the wildfire smoke is heavy, some people may experience vision changes such as blurry vision brought on by irritation of the conjunctiva. Severe dry eye diseases can damage the corneal surface, thus affecting visual acuity. Also, if the smoke has a high concentration of particulate matter, particles in your eyes will cause discomfort and hinder your vision.

  • Can wildfire smoke cause blurred vision?

    In some cases, the particulate matter and gases in wildfire smoke cause blurred vision.

References

Doctor of optometry depicts historic wildfire. (August 2018). American Optometric Association.

How to Cope When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes . (September 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Evidence review: wildfire smoke and public health risk. (March 2014). British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.

Eyes Irritated by Summer Smoke? Here's What to Do. (July 2021). Health University of Utah.

Burning wildlands, burning eyes. (September 2017). American Optometric Association.

Is Household Air Pollution a Risk Factor for Eye Disease? (October 2013). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Air Pollutants are associated with Dry Eye Disease in Urban Ophthalmic Outpatients: a Prevalence Study in China. (February 2019). Journal of Translational Medicine.

Traffic-related air pollutants increase the risk for age-related macular degeneration. (2019). Journal of Investigative Medicine.

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