I can't be sure exactly when it started, but mid-2020 seems an appropriate guess. Mild headaches coupled with itchy eyes – that only get worse when rubbed – finally led me to visit an ophthalmologist. I was convinced I had an allergy or, worse, pink eye. But instead, I was diagnosed with an increasingly common condition in our technology-driven world: the dreaded quarantine dry eye.
Symptoms are varied and include everything from a burning or “foreign body” sensation to irritation, redness, fluctuating vision, eye strain and headaches, explains Dr Osama Giledi, a consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai. He links the condition to one specific cause that has manifested over the past year. “It’s because of the increased time people are spending on monitors and staying indoors due to the pandemic,” he says. “People who spend hours looking at screens each day are at higher risk of the condition.”
Jabeen Mohammed Jaffer, an optometrist with Medcare, says the extended use of most electronic devices such as computers, tablets, e-readers and mobile phones causes “digital eye strain or computer vision syndromes, which result in a collection of eye problems”. Excessive air-conditioning and a dry environment can also play a role.
According to data from the World Digital Report 2021, the average UAE resident spent seven hours and 24 minutes online per day in 2020. Unsurprisingly, then, another study published earlier this year stated that two-thirds of UAE residents suffer from dry eyes.
There’s even been a spike of eye-related complaints among younger children earlier this year, with medics urging parents to limit screen time, advice adults would do well to heed by, say ophthalmologists.
However, as everything from our personal to professional lives now revolve around screens, it may not be as simple as it sounds.
The good news is that screen-related eye issues, including dry eyes, are reversible if managed well. Here are some tips on how to care for your eyes and lessen damage from screens.
“As silly as it sounds, try to remember to blink,” says Jaffer. This is because blinking lubricates the eyes. Research suggests we blink much less when we are staring at screens, with one 2019 poll, which studied the behaviour of 2,000 UK professionals, finding that we blink a staggering 60 per cent less while on the computer.
So, being conscious of how much you’re opening and shutting your peepers – and making an active effort to do so – can help combat the condition.
You can also try blinking exercises when answering calls or doing other activities that don’t require a screen, such as blinking 10 times rapidly, then closing your eyes for five seconds, and repeating this five times.
The 20-20-20 rule
While experts advise limiting screen time to eight hours a day, it’s even more important to have regular breaks from the screen. Giledi advises the 20-20-20 rule, that is “every 20 minutes you need to take a 20-second break and focus on something 20 feet away while trying to relax”.
“This is the best piece of advice we can give working professionals who have no choice but to spend nine hours in front of a screen every day.”
Eye yoga and other exercises
A trend that’s emerged this year is eye yoga, and experts as well as celebrities such as Paul McCartney swear by it. Unlike your downward dog or vinyasa flow poses, though, you don’t have to leave the couch to practise it. Eye yoga involves the use of movements that work to strengthen and condition the muscles in the eyes.
“Every few hours, look at an object that is in the distance, as far as can be, and then focus on an object close to you. Repeat this a few times,” says Giledi. You can also use your thumb for this exercise, by holding a thumb up, focusing your eyes on it, and then moving it close to your face, and back, slowly.
Another exercise involves “moving your eyes to look at opposite directions and back” – so from side to side, and then from above to below. “This exercises the eye muscles and builds focus,” says Giledi. He also recommends taking frequent breaks for body movements such as stretching.
Adjust your settings
Adjust the display settings of your computer to ensure they are comfortable for you. This includes making sure fonts are easily readable, while the brightness is similar to that of your surroundings. “Make sure you have good ambient lighting and reduce the screen’s brightness,” suggests Jaffer. “And don’t read in dark rooms with only your screen brightly lit.”
Lowering the blue light emitted from your PC by customising the colour temperature is also a good idea. “Use new monitors that emit less blue light. You can also use software in the computer to reduce blue light,” says Giledi.
Since you’re going to be spending hours on the screen whether you like it or not, he also recommends looking into other environmental factors that might be exacerbating the problem. This includes low humidity and the air-conditioner setting, both of which can cause dry eyes.
Glare, the reflection of light off your screen, can make it difficult to see the screen clearly and adds to eye irritation. Jaffer recommends setting up your system in such a way that you avoid direct light that can create a glare on the screen.
You can also reduce glare with a glare-reducing matte screen filter.
Finally, if you have to be on a screen all day, it’s worth looking into antiglare glasses with an anti-reflective coating, after speaking to your optometrist, she says.
Foods that help eyesight
Giledi recommends eating plenty of nuts and seeds, which play a role in maintaining a healthy retina; fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids; and leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and lettuce, which are rich in lutein. “Some meat such as beef, turkey and lamb contain zinc, which helps delay age-related sight loss,” he says.
Eye drops and subscriptions
Another reason the pandemic may have led to eye-related issues is that people were far less likely to visit eye doctors for fear of catching or spreading Covid-19 over the last year. And failing to be up to date with these check-ups can worsen eye-related issues, says Jaffer.
“If you’re a spectacles or contact lens wearer, you need to check your prescription every six months. Uncorrected prescriptions can worsen your screen-related eye problems.”
Another pro tip? Doctor-recommended lubricating eye drops, which should be used following prolonged screen usage, both as a curative and preventive measure.