As smoke from the California wildfires spreads across the country, people are feeling the effects in their eyes, even those who live miles away from the hotspots. People who already suffer from eye conditions such as dry eye, blepharitis, or allergic conjunctivitis are especially susceptible to the burning and stinging eye pain that smoke can cause.
“Every single patient I’ve seen today [Aug. 9], almost without exception, has complained of stinging, burning, red eyes, and my eyes are feeling the same way,” said John Bosetti, MD, an ophthalmologist in Napa, Calif. His practice is located miles from the largest wildfire in California’s history.
"Patients with pre-existing health problems have had a particularly hard time," he adds. Even patients with mild underlying diseases have come in to his clinic seeking treatment for red, irritated eyes.
Get relief from wildfire smoke with these 5 tips
During this wildfire season, many people are staying indoors because of COVID-19 and wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These measures may help reduce smoke exposure, too.
"All of us will get double duty by wearing a mask," Dr. Bosetti says. "Wearing a mask may not help our eyes, but it will decrease inhalation of smoke and particles while preventing the spread of COVID-19."
Dr. Bosetti offers five simple ways to relieve burning eyes when the air is heavy with smoke:
- Over-the-counter artificial tears. Patients with underlying conditions already using artificial tears may want to double their application until the smoke dissipates.
- Cool your eyes. Keeping artificial tears in the refrigerator is a great way to have something cool ready to rinse your eyes. Lying down with a cold compress over your eyes is also soothing.
- Stay indoors. Particularly if you have an underlying condition that makes you more sensitive to the smoke, such as dry eye, it’s best to close the windows and stay indoors as much as possible.
- Wear glasses or goggles. Specialty goggles that are often prescribed to patients with dry eye can be a great option for anyone experiencing sensitivity to smoke in the air. And close-fitting glasses or sunglasses will provide at least some barrier that slows the stream of air going into your eyes.
- Improve your indoor air with an air filter. A HEPA air purifier can help keep wildfire smoke out of your home.
Your ophthalmologist can help
If these measures don't bring quick relief, ask your ophthalmologist for help. Your doctor may examine your eyes using a tool called a slit lamp to rule out other possible reasons for your eye discomfort. After that exam, your doctor may prescribe a stronger treatment, such as a brief course of anti-inflammatory medication, to soothe your eyes until the smoke clears.