By now, you must have experienced certain effects of prolonged usage of a face mask. Skin irritation, friction acne and hurting ears are some of the common side-effects experienced by wearers who use masks for prolonged periods of time. At the same time, prolonged mask-wearing has also engendered a new medical syndrome that ophthalmologists are dealing with – a condition widely being referred as ‘mask-associated dry eyes’. So, if you have been experiencing irritation and lack of lubrication of the eyes over the past few months, particularly after a face mask became a regular part of your attire, chances are you are suffering from this syndrome!
“The term ‘mask associated dry eyes’ has gained currency in recent months ever since ophthalmologists noticed a rising stream of people reporting dry and irritated eyes. One of the first discussions held in scientific literature on this phenomenon was a paper titled Face Mask-Associated Ocular Irritation and Dryness published in the Ophthalmology and Theory journal back in July 2020. The authors of the paper reported a significant increase in dry eye symptoms among regular mask users at multiple clinics in Utah in the US,” says Nikkhil K Masurkar, executive director, ENTOD Pharmaceuticals.
While no local research has been conducted so far on the subject in India, anecdotal evidence affirms the global trend. A number of people with no past history of dry eyes syndrome have reported the condition. This includes people who have been spending too much time on digital devices in a lockdown year as well as those wearing masks for prolonged periods of time. Medical professionals and other people who are at field jobs and have to wear masks all day long to safeguard themselves from the infection are more at risk of the condition.
What causes dry eyes among mask wearers?
Evidently, our faces are not designed to wear masks for hours at a stretch. We all experience how the area around our lower faces tend to heat up on account of constant exhalation inside the masks. Wearing masks obstructs the normal flow of air from our nostrils and also re-directs some of the air we exhale up towards our eyes. When this happens constantly for hours at a stretch, it contributes to the drying up of the lubrication in the eyes, resulting in irritation or inflammation of the eye surface. The research paper by the Utah researchers also studied the condition of corneal irritation among people wearing taped masks to prevent air convention towards the eyes. The study theorised that the taping mechanism interferes with the normal excursion of the lower eyelid, resulting in irritation of the ocular surface.
Can you do something about it?
It is important for prolonged mask wearers to understand its implication on eye health and initiate appropriate measures to check ocular irritation. While wearing a mask is non-negotiable, proactive steps must be initiated to eliminate or minimise its effects on ocular health. If you are one of those people who wear masks every day for hours at a stretch, here is what you can do about it:
*Wear adequately fit masks, preferably with pliable nose-wire to prevent or minimise the upward flow of air from your nostrils towards the eyes.
*Select the right mask for yourself. Ensure that your mask doesn’t have a stretching effect on your lower eyelid too much or interfere with the normal blinking process.
*If possible, give yourself regular breaks from the mask. If you can afford to spend some time at secluded or open areas between work, remove your mask and allow your eyes to recover from the irritation. By the same logic, you can remove your mask when you are walking alone in an open space or are alone at the workplace.
*If you experience symptoms such as irritation, itching, or burning sensation in the eyes, do report it to an ophthalmologists and get yourself examined immediately.
*Using lubricating eye drops such as prescribed by the ophthalmologist is recommended for people experiencing dry eyes.