From coughing and wheezing to asthmatic episodes and chest pains, air pollution can cause a myriad of respiratory issues. However, did you know particle pollution can also affect our eyes? While we instinctively protect our lungs from inhaling secondhand smoke, gasoline, or dust by covering our mouths and noses, it’s not always easy to remember that airborne substances can damage our eyes, too. Moreover, it’s not exactly possible to walk around in public with our eyes closed, nor do we recommend doing so.
This article aims to raise awareness on the detrimental effects of air pollution on eye health. We will also explore the different ocular conditions that may arise from particle pollution exposure.
Air Pollution and the Industrial Revolution
Despite the plethora of incredible technological innovations during the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution introduced several new sources of air pollution. The growing demand for raw materials and the rise of factories released a significant amount of harmful, toxic substances into the environment, including chemicals, smoke, and clouds of dust that polluted the air and posed major health risks. However, while those in Manchester (the world’s first industrial city) and other cities with bustling factories endured immediate health consequences, it was not until the mid-20th century that people across the globe began experiencing the effects of atmospheric pollutants.
Air pollution worsens as technology advances, especially in diesel-powered and coal-based industries. In response, countries far and wide are making a joint effort to not only reduce air pollution, but also prevent the associated health risks.
How Air Pollution Affects the Eyes
In a 2003 study involving commuters in Delhi, India, scientists found that those who travel along polluted areas are more prone to eye redness and irritation. The cause of these symptoms may come from different pollutants, including the presence of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter such as dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and certain drops of liquid.
Air pollutants can come from car emissions or the burning of fuel and charcoal. In addition, even indoor air pollution from sources like cigarette smoke and cooking fumes can aggravate symptoms of pre-existing eye conditions, including dry eye syndrome, conjunctivitis, and allergy-related irritation.
Eye Problems Acquired From Poor Air Quality
Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of various eye problems, including but not limited to:
1. Dry Eyes
Eyes that don’t produce enough tears or tears evaporating too quickly characterize this common condition. People with dry eyes may experience discomfort and inflammation, including symptoms such as burning, redness, light sensitivity, and blurred vision. Dry eyes can stem from various factors, including aging, hormonal changes, certain medications, and environmental factors like low humidity or exposure to air pollution.
A study conducted in New Delhi found that several residents in the metropolis have tear film abnormalities, including dry eyes. According to the authors, this increased incidence of dry eyes may be a direct effect of the city’s issue with air pollution. In fact, according to recent headlines from NBC News, air pollution has been leaving New Delhi residents gasping for breath.
Treatment options for dry eyes include using artificial tears, prescription eye drops, and making lifestyle changes like taking breaks from digital screens and using a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Protective eyewear can also help reduce exposure to air pollution.
Related: Ways to Prevent Dry Eyes
2. Eye Pain or Eyestrain
Affecting one or both eyes, this condition causes minor to severe ocular discomfort. Symptoms typically include heavy eyelids, photophobia, and sharp or throbbing pain.
Air pollution can cause eye pain by irritating the delicate tissues of the eyes. Pollutants like dust and dirt are leading examples, which can come into contact with the ocular surface, leading to dryness, inflammation, and a burning or stinging sensation.
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an inflammation of the thin, transparent layer of tissue covering the whites of the eye and lines the inner eyelid. This condition can stem from bacterial or viral infections, allergies, underlying health problems, or exposure to irritants in the air. The tell-tale signs of conjunctivitis include redness, itching, burning, discharge, and sensitivity to light.
There is much evidence correlating conjunctivitis with heavy air pollution. In recent studies, researchers found that on the very days with significant concentrations of air pollution, there Research reveals that certain air pollutants have a significant impact on the out-patient visits for conjunctivitis. In particular, exposure to nitrogen oxide, ozone, and particulate matter increased conjunctivitis incidences, highlighting the importance of monitoring and reducing these pollutants to enhance public health.
Treatment for conjunctivitis typically includes antibiotics, antihistamines, or anti-inflammatory medications. In some cases, warm compresses or artificial tears may help alleviate symptoms.
4. Age-Related Macular Degeneration
Medical researchers have long linked pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxide to an elevated risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This chronic ocular disease affects the retina’s central portion called the macula, which is responsible for sharp, detailed vision. Over time, untreated AMD can lead to permanent vision loss.
Fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxide can also cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the eye, which can damage the delicate structures of the retina and contribute to AMD progression. Tobacco smoking and secondhand smoke are additional risk factors for AMD and several other diseases, including the next eye problem on this list.
Long-term exposure to atmospheric pollution, including PM2.5 and cigarette smoke, increases the risk of glaucoma development and progression. Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve, which can lead to vision loss and blindness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3 million Americans have untreated glaucoma.
Multiple studies found that living in areas with high levels of air pollution – such as certain cities and counties in Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, and Bahrain – is associated with a higher prevalence of glaucoma.
Particulate matter and other air pollutants can cause dryness, irritation, and inflammation of the eyes. Prolonged exposure can also increase the risk of different eye infections and diseases, including those that can lead to blindness. To reduce your risk of developing eye problems, it’s important to minimize contact with air pollutants by using protective eyewear and avoiding areas with high levels of air pollution whenever possible. Furthermore, early detection and treatment can inhibit irreversible complications from eye diseases. If you need an eye doctor in Sun City, AZ, dial 623-474-3937 to book an appointment with Arizona Retinal Specialists and take strides toward preserving your sight.