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Winter watch: eye care proves important during cold weather season

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Winter often introduces a variety of health concerns.

Some people wonder how they are going to shed the weight they gained from stuffing themselves with irresistible holiday treats; others worry about older loved ones slipping and falling on ice and snow or keeping young ones bundled up to ward off frostbite.

With so much on everyone's minds, it is not surprising that many neglect to take care of their eyes during winter.

Understanding how winter's changes create new hazards for the eyes helps people take measures that will protect their vision for many seasons to come.

A number of people, especially skiers, snowmobilers and other snow lovers, look forward to winter each year. For them, it means swishing down the slopes or speeding through the snow. What winter outdoor enthusiasts don't realize is that they spend extended periods of time in intense reflected sunlight.

Overexposure to the winter sun's powerful ultraviolet rays without proper eye protection can harm the eyes or even cause photokeratitis, a condition comparable to a sunburn on sensitive tissues. Although photokeratitis may heal with time, the best way to preserve your vision is to avoid excess UV ray exposure.

Since people associate winter with gray skies, sunglasses are often left at home. However, the sun may come out unexpectedly, and they won't have anything to protect their eyes. Appropriate protection should also be worn when shoveling snow, putting up or taking down holiday decorations or going for a walk.

Sunglasses that block 85 to 90 percent of visible light can safely protect the eyes in all sunny weather conditions. Another option is wearing ski goggles that cover the eyes, as well as the surrounding skin. Ski goggles are great for snowmobilers, as well as downhill and cross country skiers, since they block harmful sunlight while preventing debris and snow from blowing into the eyes.

The sun is not winter's only eye hazard. Its cool winds and dryer air can irritate the eyes while outdoors. Winter's harsh weather can make it the furthest thing from a wonderland when you're eyes are consistently dry and irritated, especially for those who wear contact lenses.

Dry eyes can be a problem indoors too. Indoor heat used during winter months tends to rid the air of moisture, which can dry out and irritate eyes. Although most cases are mild, irritation and dryness can be extremely uncomfortable, causing a person to excessively rub their eyes and further irritate and, sometimes, scratch them.

Using eye drops, such as artificial tears without added redness relievers, a few times a day often relieves dry and irritated eyes. Placing humidifiers throughout the house to increase indoor levels of humidity also provides relief.

These simple adjustments will help protect your eyes all winter long, but we must remember that the best way to preserve our vision is to take good care of our eyes no matter what season it is or what we are doing.