Brrrrr! It’s cold outside. It feels good to come into a heated home or other building—but after a while, our eyes might not agree. Heating removes moisture from the air, and as a result, our eyes can feel scratchy and irritated.

If we continue to experience this problem, we might be suffering from dry eye syndrome, which happens when we don’t produce the amount and quality of tears to keep our eyes adequately lubricated. Symptoms include discomfort and the sensation that there is something in our eye. Our vision might seem blurred. If we wear contact lenses, they might be too uncomfortable to wear.

Dry eye can be caused by the side effects of medications we take; by eyelid disorders and age-related changes in our eyes; and by certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, thyroid disease and allergies.

How we spend our time might also make a difference. Staring at a digital device all day irritates the eyes—in part because we blink less often when reading from a computer screen or smartphone. Air pollution and indoor dust cause discomfort. And during this time of year, our cozy winter homes might also be the culprit.

“On average, the humidity drops in the winter with the colder weather,” explains Dr. Marissa K. Locy, O.D., an instructor at the University of Alabama Birmingham Department of Ophthalmology. “In addition, most people turn on the heat in their homes or offices to combat the cold. So, what you end up having is lower humidity outside, and even lower humidity inside, making for warm, dry conditions where moisture can evaporate from the eye faster than normal.”

Locy offers these suggestions to keep our eyes comfortable in winter:

Use a humidifier. If you spend time in heated environments, a humidifier will add some moisture back into the air. This can help restore humidity, and moisture to the eyes.

Drink lots of fluids. Keeping your body hydrated will help maintain moisture in your eyes.

Protect your eyes. If you know you will be outdoors during extreme cold or wind, make sure to wear eye protection or a hat with a visor to keep the wind and particles from getting in your eyes.

Clean your contact lenses. With cold weather, your eyes could dry even more with contacts, so make sure you are always wearing clean contacts to reduce risk of infection and itching.

Divert heat from your face. You might not feel it at the time, but blowing heat directly onto your face dries up moisture in your eyes. For example, turn the vents in your car down toward your lower body to prevent this direct contact.

See your doctor. Occasional bouts of dry eyes can eventually progress into dry eye disease. Treatment is available for dry eye disease. An eye care specialist may recommend special eye drops and other over-the-counter or prescription medications. Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, may help. In some cases, surgery is recommended, most commonly the insertion of tiny plugs into the tear ducts to keep tears in the eye longer. Other treatments are available, depending on the underlying cause of the condition.

Dry eye disease can not only cause pain, but also can affect our vision. So don’t put off reporting the symptoms to your eye care specialist.

Source: IlluminAge with information from the University of Alabama Birmingham

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Report symptoms of dry eye to your eye care specialist or other healthcare provider.