THE BLOG

Can Contacts Freeze? And Other Winter Eye Care Questions

02/02/2015 08:14 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
Jasper White via Getty Images

Winter can be a tough season for our eyes, with the season's cold, dry temperatures, heavy winds, and harmful UV rays reflecting off snow and ice. Eyes require moisture, but during wintertime, there's little to be found. Outdoors, there's less humidity, and indoors, we dry up our homes blasting the heater. Because I hear the largest number of complaints about dry, uncomfortable eyes during winter, I've compiled a few winter eye care questions you can relate to and may find interesting.

Do Contacts Freeze?
No. Winter's cold, dry air might irritate your contacts, but you needn't worry about them freezing or sticking to your eye. The military looked into this in an early '80s study, in which they fitted rabbits with hard contact lenses and exposed them to minus 90 Fahrenheit temperatures and 78 mph winds. Fortunately for the rabbits, the lenses did not freeze, and no acute harmful effects were observed.

Can my eyes get sunburned?
Yes. It happened to CNN's Anderson Cooper. On his talk show, he said he suffered eye sunburn while on assignment in Portugal. It felt, he said, like his eyeballs were on fire. The technical term is "keratitis." It occurs when there's extensive UV exposure to the cornea, our eye's sensitive front surface (think the windshield of a car). It can lead to blurry vision and very sore eyes for 24 to 72 hours. One common cause of keratitis is skiing without goggles on a winter day. Cloudy or dark sky should not be used as an excuse, since harmful ultraviolet (UV) can penetrate clouds! The sun's UV rays can be even harsher during winter than in the summer months. So whenever you're on the slopes, wear those protective goggles or sunglasses!

Why do my eyes water when it's cold?
I often get this question from winter joggers. Typically, your eyes water because they're dry. Seems paradoxical, but anything that irritates your eyes, including dry eye, causes a tearing reflex. Dry eye, a common condition in wintertime, occurs when winter winds evaporate moisture from the top layer of your cornea. That sends your tear glands working overtime to restore moisture. There are a number of ways to improve dry eye. First, try wearing protective glasses or goggles. You can also use saline eye drops before you go outside. Indoors, try using a humidifier. If dry eye persists, consult with your eye doctor. In chronic cases, treatments like LipiFlow can open your blocked eye glands and resume natural production of lipids (oils), which are necessary for a healthy eye.

Why do the bags under my eyes appear heavier in winter?
Medically speaking, there's nothing to worry about here. Still, I get this question often in winter months, so it's an interesting topic to explore. Dark circles, or "bags," are often caused by tiny capillaries leaking blood beneath the skin's surface. When that blood oxidizes, it turns the skin a bruise-like dark blue color. It's often more pronounced in winter time because our skin becomes lighter and more transparent, due to less exposure to sunlight. It's exacerbated by fatigue, due to lower levels of vitamin D, also generated in sunlight.