A woman wearing a mask on the lower half of her face.

7 Tips to Stay Masked and Avoid Dry Eyes

The COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened symptoms for some people living with chronic dry eye (CDE). This is because wearing a face mask incorrectly may cause tears to evaporate faster. However, face masks remain key to preventing the airborne spread of COVID-19.1

While the pandemic is lessening in some areas, it is increasing in others. This is due to varying rates of vaccination against COVID-19 in some communities. It is also due to new variants developing in the virus that causes COVID-19.

What this means is that masks are here to stay for a little while longer. The explanations and tips below can help you get comfortable with your face mask while also avoiding dry eyes.

How face masks affect eyes

It helps to understand the link between face masks and dry eyes. A loosely fitting mask can cause exhaled breath to escape upward. This repeated spray of air quickens the evaporation of tears, which leads to dryness in the eye.1

Taping a face mask across the bridge of your nose can prevent unwanted upward airflow. But it also introduces new problems. Improperly positioned tape can cause small tugs in the skin that prevent the lower eyelids from properly closing. Blinks that are cut short can disrupt the delicate balance of tear film in the eye, which also creates dryness.1

Who is affected?

Eye doctors have reported that the widespread use of face masks during the pandemic has worsened symptoms for some people with CDE. About 27 percent of people in one study reported an increase in dry eye symptoms while wearing a face mask.4

However, people who are experiencing dry eyes as a new symptom caused by wearing a face mask may have a different condition known as mask-associated dry eye (MADE).2

Other similar situations where air is forced over the eye, such as when wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask to help with sleep apnea, have long been known to cause dry eyes.1

Certain people are more at risk of developing dry eyes from extended use of face masks. Older adults are more likely to be affected because people naturally produce fewer tears as they age. People who are immunocompromised are also at risk due to their increased need to wear a face mask in many situations.1

Plus, people who must continuously wear masks for work are also at risk of developing dry eyes. This includes people who work in air-conditioned, heated, or windy spaces, as well as those whose work involves looking at digital screens for long periods of time.1

Tips for wearing a mask

It is clear that wearing face masks helps lessen the spread of COVID-19. The question is how to best wear a face mask while keeping the eyes well lubricated. Tips to help include:1-3

  • Face masks should fit well. A metal nose bridge can produce a tighter fit that clamps down on unwanted upward air drafts.
  • Tape carefully. Use tape across the top of a mask only if it can be positioned to not interfere with blinking.
  • Get comfortable with eye drops. Supplement natural tears with lubricating eye drops. Ask your eye doctor for their recommendation.
  • Take breaks. If it is safe, take a break from wearing a face mask every few hours. Also take regular breaks from digital devices, if possible.
  • Be savvy with your surroundings. Limit time spent in windy, air-conditioned, or heated places.
  • Get your meibomian glands checked. Visit your eye doctor and ask about your meibomian gland function. These glands are found in the eyelid and release meibum oil onto the surface of the eye. This oil helps slow the rate of tear evaporation.
  • Do not forget to blink. Blinking exercises (doubled with a mask break!) can help the eye to naturally produce lubricating tears.

When to talk to a doctor

If you or a loved one are experiencing eyes that are chronically dry, talk to your doctor. CDE is a chronic condition, but its symptoms can be made worse by factors like wearing a face mask. Mask-associated dry eye (MADE) may mimic the symptoms of CDE. Only a doctor can make a CDE or MADE diagnosis and recommend the treatment or interventions that will best help you.

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