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Eye health 101: How to protect vision and keep your eyes healthy
Health Education

Eye health 101: How to protect vision and keep your eyes healthy

These nine steps—from diet to medication—can help you protect your vision.

From reading, to working on the computer, to driving your car—vision plays an important role in your everyday life. Taking steps to protect your eye health is important. Simple things like getting annual eye exams, reducing screen time, and wearing sunglasses can all help to prevent vision problems. 

Signs of eye problems 

If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your optometrist or ophthalmologist:

  • Blurry vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Eye allergies
  • Floaters
  • Eyestrain
  • Tunnel vision 
  • Difficulty seeing at night, especially when driving

Regular vision checks can help to detect and correct vision problems in their early stages, before they lead to permanent issues.

Causes of eye problems 

There are three main categories that can cause damage to eye health.

Technology

With social media, videoconferences, and binge-watching television shows, studies say many Americans are spending nearly half of their day staring at a screen—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. All that time spent online can lead to dry eyes. Risk of acquiring dry eyes also increases as you get older.

Medication side effects

While your doctor and pharmacist can recommend prescriptions to help you protect your eyesight, it’s also important to be aware of medications that can cause vision problems. 

“OTC antihistamines can dry out the eye surface,” says Selina McGee, doctor of optometry, founder of Precision Vision in Edmond, Oklahoma. “Since some prescription medications can affect vision, it’s important to share any and all medications prescription and over the counter medications with their eye care provider and/or pharmacist.”

In addition, Jeff Kegarise, board-certified optometrist at Cool Springs Eye Care in Franklin, Tennessee, says bladder control medications and anti-nausea medications are particularly drying and problematic to the ocular surface. “Decongestants, certain blood pressure medications and antidepressants can also contribute to dry eye,” Dr. Kegarise says.

Allergens

Itchy, red, and swollen eyes can result from exposure to pollen, pet dander, smoke, and perfume. Dr. McGee says allergic reactions can also result from makeup and skincare products. She recommends looking at ingredients in makeup and cleansers that can lead to issues with ocular surface health. These include talc, lead, selenium, nickel, mineral oil, sodium lauryl sulfate, and more.

How can I check my eye health? 

If you have eye pain or other symptoms that don’t resolve within a day or two, make an appointment with an optometrist or ophthalmologist.

At your appointment, your doctor will ask questions about your medical history to see if you have or if you’re at a higher risk for any conditions such as diabetes, Grave’s disease, or high blood pressure that may affect your vision. 

Your healthcare provider will then walk you through a series of eye tests to check your pupil reactions, how well you can read an eye chart, and examine parts of your eyes including the retina, cornea, iris and lens. Your provider may also test the fluid pressure inside your eyes to check for glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve. Although glaucoma becomes more common as people age, vision loss can often be prevented through routine eye exams and early treatment.

RELATED: What you need to know about diabetic retinopathy

How to protect vision and improve eye health

These tips can help to protect vision, and avoid future eye problems.

1. Schedule regular eye exams

Maintaining good eye health begins with a comprehensive eye health and vision exam that includes an overall review of the systemic medical history, medications, environment, symptoms, and how you use your eyes. 

“Close inspection of the eyelid glands including imaging is essential,” Dr. Kegarise says. “Each decade of life brings with it more common eye health preventative and corrective needs. Talk with your eye doctor who should be well versed in recommending preventative and/or curative treatments that are individualized to you as a patient.”

2. Get individualized recommendations

Your doctor can also determine whether or not you might benefit from a prescription eye medication. “Most OTC dry eye medications are just artificial tears or supplemental lubricants that temporarily add an extra volume of water to the tears, prescription drops add lubrication and/or arrest inflammation on the surface of the eye, a main cause of symptoms,” says Dr. Kegarise. “Prescription drops can address the root cause of the ocular surface problem.”

Or, antihistamine eye drops may be recommended to help with allergic reactions such as red and itchy eyes. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved prescription eye drop medications, Patanol and Pataday, to be available for purchasing on an over-the-counter basis in pharmacies.

3. Consider artificial tears

Refresh Digital is a new non-prescription lubricant eye drop formulated to specifically relieve dryness and irritation that may occur from prolonged screen time,” Dr. McGee says. “I recommend using it two to four times each day to support the ocular surface and to help with eye dryness associated with our current digital world.”

4. Rest your eyes

Dr. McGee recommends practicing the 20/20 rule when spending time in front of a screen. “For every 20 minutes of screen time look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds,” Dr. McGee says. “Also, remember to blink since studies have shown we blink less when looking at a screen.”

5. Practice good nutrition

Eating nutrient-rich foods can also go a long way in protecting your eyesight. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends eating a diet low in fat and rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains to preserve your vision. Some particularly good foods for eye health include fish, orange-colored vegetables, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and beans. If you’re not getting the proper nutrients through your diet, talk to your doctor about supplementing with vitamins.

6. Take vitamins for eye health

As an example of the benefit of supplements, Dr. McGee cites the AREDS-2 study on patients with moderate macular degeneration. This study showed that taking daily doses of vitamin C and vitamin E, beta carotene, zinc, and copper could slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration.

“Most dry eye experts will prescribe vitamin A, D, and E if a patient is deficient,” Dr. Kegarise says. “More beneficial are oral omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), which are anti-inflammatory and pro-tear health.”

7. Exercise

Along with a healthy diet, physical activity is important to your overall health and reduces the likelihood that you will develop a chronic health condition that could damage your eyes. Regularly getting your heart rate up is beneficial for blood pressure, lowers risk of diabetes, and has positive effects for cholesterol. All of these conditions can damage vision when untreated. In this case, avoidance is the best medicine.

8. Wear protective eyewear

If you’re out in the sun, a pair of shades that block 99% of UVA and UVB rays can help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration. If you play sports, make sure to don a set of goggles to block stray pucks or balls.

9. Quit smoking

Sure, it’s bad for your lungs, but did you know cigarettes can damage your eyesight, too? It increases risk of macular degeneration, cataracts, and causes damage to the optic nerve, according to the National Eye Institute. If you needed another reason to kick the habit, now you have it!