If you take a look around you right now, odds are that you’ll see quite a few people wearing glasses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 12 million people over 40 in the U.S. have vision impairment, and around 61 million U.S. adults are at high risk for major vision loss. There are some risk factors for worsening vision, like age, that can’t be controlled, but there are others that can be. You just might not realize what they are. Here, we’ve consulted doctors to round up some of the surprising things that can affect your eye health and damage your vision.
“Dry eyes aren’t just a nuisance—they can actually cause damage to the front surface of the eye,” explains Jonathan Wolfe, a New York-based optometrist. In the winter, he sees hordes of people presenting with this damage, usually due to “the warm, dry air that’s produced by the central heating in a home or office.”
But there is hope! Wolfe says that “simply having a humidifier in the bedroom can lead to significant improvement in comfort and ocular health.”
If you think your eye health is better in the summer when the AC is on, think again. According to optometrist Leigh Plowman, air conditioning, like heating, “reduces the relative humidity” in a room, and this “is often a contributor to dry eye disease.” The American Optometric Association (AOA) notes that advanced dry eyes can lead to impaired vision, so make sure to lower your AC (and get some eye drops) to keep your eye health in good shape.
When your allergies are acting up, it can be tempting to rub your eyes to ease the discomfort. However, Wolfe warns that “excessive eye rubbing can greatly increase one’s chances of developing corneal thinning (keratoconus) or accelerate already developing keratoconus,” especially in children.
Try to keep your makeup remover far away from the surface of your eyes. “Makeup removers often have high levels of benzalkonium chloride, which is toxic to the surface of the eye,” explains Plowman. One 2010 abstract published in Progress in Retinal and Eye Research notes that exposure to this chemical can cause discomfort, inflammation, and damage to ocular tissues (read: vision loss).
If you’re a person who likes to get dolled up when they go out, you might want to limit how often you put on eyelash extensions. According to Plowman, the glue used to attach false eyelashes “can contain toxic ingredients,” while the fake eyelashes themselves “are like ‘warm sleeping bags’ for bacteria and mites” around the eyelids.
The next time you go outside to mow the lawn or move a branch out of the driveway, make sure you’re wearing the proper eye protection. According to Satish modi, a board-certified ophthalmologist at Seeta Eye Care in New York, “performing yard work and other tasks where it is possible for something to damage the eye without eye protection can lead to serious injuries” that permanently impair your vision. “Simply wearing durable safety glasses when performing maintenance tasks can make all the difference for your eyesight,” he says.
Anyone with less than perfect vision knows that contact lenses are a godsend. However, if you use contact lenses, you need to make sure that you’re using them properly, or else you could be putting your eye health and vision at risk.
“Contact lenses can build up deposits of protein, lipids, cosmetics, and other debris over time,” explains Plowman. “Bacteria can also attach themselves to the surface of the lenses and cause a significant eye infection.” In a 2016 report published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers found that from 2005 to 2015, approximately 20 percent of all contact lens-related corneal infections resulted in some sort of visual impairment, so be careful.
Make sure you take out your contact lenses before you shower or swim. “Hidden bacteria lives in water, and these can cause severe eye infections,” says Damon Ezekiel, an optometrist and president of the International Society of Contact Lens Specialists. “Some people have been very unfortunate and have lost an eye due to these conditions.”
Another thing you shouldn’t do when you’re wearing contact lenses? Sleep. “While there are soft contact lenses that are approved for overnight wear, the risk of infection goes up exponentially when you sleep in the lenses,” explains Benjamin Bert, MD, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California. “The physical lens itself can dry out on the surface of the eye and cause microscopic damage that allows bacteria to enter the cornea and cause an ulcer.”
Sleep apnea isn’t just making you more tired. According to Plowman, the sleep disorder also has the potential to lead to vision loss by causing other conditions like glaucoma. In one 2013 study published in the journal Ophthalmology, researchers found that patients with sleep apnea had a 1.67 times higher risk of developing glaucoma within the first five years of their diagnosis compared to those without the condition.
Antidepressants come with several potential side effects, one of which is vision problems. These drugs “can affect the focusing of your eyes” and “[make] it harder for your eyes to work together well,” Plowman notes. If you start to take antidepressants and suddenly notice your eye health deteriorating, Plowman suggests talking to an eye doctor to discuss other options.
Antidepressants aren’t the only type of medication that can cause ocular side effects. One common type of acne medication called Roaccutane—or isotretinoin—can “damage the Meibomian glands in the eyelids” that are responsible for keeping your eyes moist, Plowman says. If you’re on this medication and you start to experience dry eyes, ask your dermatologist about alternate medications.
It pays to invest in high quality shades. “Some sunglasses might appear to have dark lenses, but they don’t provide enough UV protection,” explains Ezekiel. “Good quality sunglasses have superior UV protection, and the ultimate protection for your eyes comes from polarized sunglasses.”
The only thing worse than wearing cheap sunglasses is wearing no sunglasses at all. Even in the winter, Ezekiel explains that “exposing your eyes to UV light without protection may lead to a pterygium [a growth on the cornea], eyelid cancers, or cataracts. The more frequently you head outside without sunglasses, the more likely you are to encounter long-term issues.”
There’s a reason why your eyes feel so itchy whenever you fly. Not only is the same air recirculating on an airplane, but “those directed air vents can dry your eyes out before you get to your final destination,” notes Melissa Toyos, a Nashville-based ophthalmologist. Sleeping on the plane with an eye mask can reduce the risk of dry eyes.
Unfortunately, spending too much time in front of the computer can seriously impact your eye health. According to Toyos, computer use is the “No. 1 emerging cause of dry, irritated eyes.” What’s more, vision problems related to computer use are so common that the American Optometric Association (AOA) has a special name for them: Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).
Like your computer, your cell phone screen also emits blue light that can harm your eyes. “Blue light has less energy than UV [light], but it penetrates deeper into the eye than ultraviolet rays, reaching the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye,” explains Gary Heiting, director of vision research and standards at Eyesafe. Limit how much time you spend looking at your phone in order to protect your eye health.
Smoking cigarettes affects more than just your lungs. One 2019 study from Rutgers University found that people who smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day had more difficulty differentiating between colors than those who smoked fewer than 15 cigarettes daily.
In serious cases, a poor diet or a lack of certain nutrients can lead to vision problems. For instance, “vegans should take vitamins to prevent B-12 deficiency blindness,” says Howard R. Krauss, MD, a surgical neuro-ophthalmologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. He also notes that “excessive alcohol intake” and “[certain] medical conditions” can “reduce vitamin absorption” and, in turn, potentially cause blindness.
“Diabetes can affect almost every part of the eye, from front to back,” says Plowman. The National Eye Institute notes that having diabetes makes you two to five times more likely to develop cataracts, nearly doubles your risk of developing open-angle glaucoma, and puts you at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to vision loss and, in severe cases, total blindness.