Climate, Environment and Dry Eye

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on May 03, 2023
3 min read

Maybe it's just a small shift in your surroundings -- a change of seasons or a new office. But suddenly, your eyes constantly feel dry.

It’s not your imagination. Your environment can trigger dry eye disease or make it worse. Luckily, if you can figure out what’s irritating your eyes, you may be able to make changes to ease the discomfort. If you have long-lasting symptoms of dry eye, your doctor can also prescribe treatments.

Dry eye disease happens when your tears don’t lubricate your eyes well enough. This can happen if your eyes don’t make enough tears. But it can also happen if your tears evaporate too quickly from the surface of your eyes. That's the process that changes in your environment can affect.

Warm or dry air makes moisture evaporate from the surface of your eyes more quickly than cool or humid air. This means people in hot, dry climates are more prone to dry eye disease year-round than those in wet, tropical areas. 

But colder weather can also trigger dry eye. That's because outdoor humidity often drops in the winter. And using the heating system in your home or office during the winter can make your indoor environment very warm and dry.

Your eyes are exposed to whatever is in the air around you, whether that’s clean mountain air, city pollution, or smoke from a fire.

Tiny, solid particles in air pollution, dust, and smoke can lodge themselves in your tear film, the moist layer of tears that coats your eye. This means the tear film is less able to keep your eye lubricated, which makes your eyes feel dry.

Also, pollutants that end up on the surface of your eyes can trigger inflammation, your immune system’s natural reaction to dust, dirt, and germs. In turn, inflammation affects the way the cells in your eyes work. That can lead to less tear production, too.

Many of the things that influence dry eye disease indoors are the same as those that affect it outside: temperature and humidity. Spending time in a warm, dry room is more likely to cause dry eye than a cool, humid room.  Poor air quality, whether from indoor pollution, dust, cigarette smoke, or aerosol sprays, is also linked to dry eye.

Of course, it's easier to change your indoor environment than the one outdoors. Adding a humidifier to your home or office, or lowering the temperature by just 1 degree, can decrease symptoms of dry eye. You can often improve air quality by opening windows, cleaning surfaces and air vents regularly, and growing plants indoors.

Airplanes are notorious for dry air and poor air quality. Passengers and crews often report not only dry eyes, but dry skin and dry or stuffy noses after flights. Studies mimicking the conditions on airplanes have shown that the level of humidity on a flight makes tears evaporate from your eyes faster.