Lockdowns caused changes to people’s diets and screen-viewing habits, which may have contributed to the development of chronic dry eye.

According to the National Eye Institute, chronic dry eye is a potentially serious condition that can result in eye discomfort and vision problems.

The condition is widespread but has become even more common with COVID-19 prevention measures. One research article details how lockdown strategies may have led to an increase in “quarantine dry eye.”

People can take preventive steps to support their eye health, even when spending more time at home in front of screens.

The 2021 research article outlines some important ways that COVID-19 prevention measures affect the occurrence and severity of dry eye disease. The authors point to more screen time, disruption of nutritious eating habits, and irregular sleep patterns as reasons for more cases of dry eye disease.

They also cite previous research, which found that indoor air quality contributes to dry eye. Air conditioning increases airflow over your eyes. When combined with work in front of screens, it adds to tear evaporation.

Staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to decreased intake of some nutrients because of changes in cooking and dining routines. People may not have consumed enough essential fatty acids, vitamin A, and vitamin D, all of which are important for eye health.

Inadequate sleep can also reduce tear quality and contribute to dry eye. The authors note that certain medications, including those prescribed for mental health concerns, which some people may have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, can also result in dry eye symptoms.

Other studies of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on eye health support the conclusions of the article’s authors.

A 2021 study involving 1,797 people who switched to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic showed a significant increase in digital eye strain symptoms. Nearly one-third (28.6%) of respondents had severe dry eye disease. The study authors connected these results in part to the increase in time using visual display terminals (screens).

A 2020 survey of 107 medical students in Italy showed that more than 10% of respondents had new or worsening eye symptoms, and 19.6% used tear substitutes daily. The researchers attributed these results to increased screen time and mask use, which contributed to the drying of tears.

According to the American Optometric Association, eye health professionals continued to provide care with new safety protocols in place during the pandemic. Despite these reassurances, people with dry eye noted in a separate survey that they could not always get the professional eye care they wanted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2021 study of 388 people with preexisting dry eye found that those with moderate dry eye had a significant increase in symptoms between June and July 2020. In comparison with people with mild dry eye, those with severe dry eye also reported reduced access to treatment.

Additionally, almost one-quarter (23%) said they could not get prescription treatments for dry eye, and 14% indicated a lack of access to in-office treatment. One-third (33%) had trouble getting over-the-counter (OTC) products.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), people usually blink about 15 times per minute. Screen time reduces that blink rate to 5–7 times per minute. Fewer blinks and “incomplete” blinks (when your eyelids do not close completely) result in less moisture on the surface of your eyes.

The AAO also says there’s no evidence that blue light from screens causes eye damage. However, blue light can affect sleep patterns. Optometrists recommend shutting off screens 2–3 hours before going to bed to support healthy sleep. Getting too little sleep can cause eye dryness.

Wearing an ill-fitting mask can also contribute to dry eye disease. Breathing with a mask causes airflow to move upward, over the surface of your eyes, resulting in tear evaporation. Researchers at the University of Waterloo recommend finding a mask that correctly fits your face and even taping the top to prevent upward airflow.

Even as some parts of the world emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many people continue to work and study from home. Here are some ways to keep your eyes healthy and prevent dry eye disease:

  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Break up your screen time every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
  • Blink frequently: Close your eyelids deliberately and regularly. You can even post a reminder note by your digital screens to stop and blink.
  • Wear a well-fitting mask: Choose a mask that fits snugly over your nose to reduce upward airflow.
  • Eat a nutritious diet: Try to eat foods that are high in vitamins D and A.
  • Take supplements: Ask your optometrist whether supplements could help improve your eye health. The AAO says that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may increase tear production.
  • Turn off screens before bed: Try to make the last 2–3 hours before bed screen-free time.
  • Use artificial tears: You can use OTC artificial tears throughout the day when you experience dry eye. Lubricating gels with nighttime application may provide additional relief.
  • Call your eye doctor: Your eye doctor can help you assess whether your dry eye is caused by screen time, diet, or possibly an autoimmune condition such as Sjögren disease.

COVID-19 prevention measures have been essential to help the world emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift to working remotely, wearing masks, and spending more time at home led to an increase in dry eye.

People can ease the symptoms of this condition by reducing screen time, maintaining a nutritious diet, wearing properly fitting masks, using artificial tears, and attending regular eye doctor appointments.