The sunshine, temperature, and wind outside can affect your eyes and lead to more dryness. The indoor heat during winter months can also dry them out. But heat can also benefit your eyes. Warm compresses or heat devices may reduce dryness.
Causes of dry eyes can range from air quality and hot outdoor temperatures to eye diseases or structural differences with your eye or eyelid. But using heated devices or therapies can also help treat conditions that cause dry eye.
This article explores the effects heat can have on your eyes, how to manage eye dryness related to the weather or temperature, and when heated devices might actually help treat different eye conditions.
Too much heat can damage many of the tissues in your body, including your eyes. Excessive heat can cause heat strain or damage, but defining what’s excessive can be difficult.
A 2022 study showed that even the heat and humidity trapped in a pair of goggles might damage your eyes over time. This can cause eye health problems, including fatigue, pain, soreness, and blurred vision.
The study above investigated the use of standard goggles by healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. It showed there was moderate heat strain after just 4 hours of use. The impact of this heat strain increased, along with the eyestrain symptoms, the longer the healthcare workers wore the goggles.
It’s also well-known that heat and wind can cause eye dryness in the summer months. That’s because the weather evaporates or dries the tear-creating film that lubricates and protects your eyes.
What is dry eye?
Your eyes have three layers of fluid inside them that typically keep them moist:
- an oily layer that forms the outside of the tear film
- a watery layer that forms the middle of the tear film
- a mucus layer on the innermost part of the tear film
Together, these layers help lubricate your eye to help it retain moisture and wash away debris.
Environmental and air quality issues, like wind, temperature changes, smoke, and other irritants can change the composition or quality of your tears. There are also conditions you may develop that could change the way your body produces and uses tears.
Roughly 16 million people in the United States have dry eye. Dry eye symptoms can involve:
- stinging or burning
- eye redness
- getting a scratchy sensation, like having something in your eye
- experiencing blurry vision
- feeling a sensitivity to light
Although too much heat isn’t good for your eyes in general, there are some situations when people may actually use heat to treat dry eye symptoms or other eye conditions.
In most cases, when experts study heat therapies for treating dry eyes, they observe that it’s the impact the heat has on opening up the meibomian glands that may have the most benefit. These glands are the tiny ones on your upper and lower eyelids that release the oils that help lubricate your eyes and keep tears from drying up.
When these glands aren’t working correctly or experience blockage, they don’t release meibum. For this reason, meibomian gland dysfunction is actually the leading cause of dry eyes and dry eye disease.
Some heat-related treatments that can help treat these eyelid glands include:
- devices using light therapy, which can include eye masks, goggles, or other therapeutic devices
- eyelid massage
- warm compresses
The goal of these therapies is to soften the oils in the meibomian gland, allowing them to better lubricate the eye.
This 2019 study showed that heating the eyelid to a temperature between 104 and 106.7°F (40 and 41. 5°C) provided relief, but higher temperatures could actually worsen dry eyes.
The heat and humidity in your environment can have a big impact on your eye health.
Dryness in the air can irritate and reduce moisture on the surface of your eye. While summer may come to mind as the time that heat could dry your eyes the most, one 2015 study showed a higher rate of dry eye cases in the winter. The reason for this is a combination of heat and dryness from indoor heating during the winter months.
Spring was another time of year when dry eye cases were high, according to that study, but allergens and pollen were the primary causes during that season. Additionally, while the hot, humid climate in Miami, Florida, had a higher rate of dry eye cases than the national average, it wasn’t the temperature that was particularly to blame.
The study authors found that while Miami, Florida, tends to be hot year-round, it was the hot climate’s impact on pollen and mold concentrations that increased dry eye more than the outdoor temperature itself.
Sunshine was the second most common instigator of dry eye symptoms, since 60% of the participants reported its impact on their dry eye symptoms. Also, 42% of the participants reported that their eye dryness was due to the heat.
Cold weather bothered 34% of the participants’ eyes, almost as many people as heat, and many other studies also show that a lack of moisture in the air from indoor heating in the winter contributes to dry eye symptoms.
Warm seasons and climates tend to have higher rates of allergies that impact your eyes and cause dryness, and indoor heating that people use in the colder months can actually dry out your eyes even more.
If you regularly experience dry eyes, you may want to consider talking with a healthcare professional about the best treatment. In some cases, heat therapies, like a warm compress, can actually help treat certain dry eye conditions.