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How wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, what you can do to protect them

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
September 28, 2018, 11:47:40 AM EDT

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So far in 2018, more than 48,900 fires have burned over 7,700,000 acres of land in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Wildfire smoke is known for its potential to wreak havoc on a person’s health, but the threats aren’t limited to the lungs.

The smoky mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees, plants and other materials can also irritate a person’s vision.

“Anyone exposed to wildfire smoke can experience eye irritation immediately, but beyond that, the smoke and the fine particulates can remain in the air for weeks after wildfires have been brought under control,” said Samuel Pierce, O.D., president of the American Optometric Association.

The Alabama-based optometrist said colleagues in wildfire-affected parts of the country have reported a rise in wildfire-related visits, with patients noting symptoms including dry eye allergies and eye irritation.

Red, irritated eye - Getty Images

(Photo/ViDi Studio/Getty Images)


The increased amount of fine particulate matter in the smoke is what triggers uncomfortable symptoms such as redness, swelling, burning, itching and blurred vision, in more severe cases.

However, exposure can become even more irritating if there are any structures burning in the fire, according to Pierce.

“You can have additional pollutants from burning paint, lumber, drywall, fiberglass, insulation and roofing materials that can also cause continuous problems to the eyes and lungs,” said Pierce, adding that wildfire smoke exposure is relatively short-lived, and that once the air is clear of fine particulate matter, wildfire-related eye problems should subside.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and many issues can clear up on their own with the aid of at-home remedies including nightly over-the counter ointments, artificial tears or cold compresses.

Those experiencing more persistent symptoms that don’t improve on their own with home care and last for longer than a couple of days are advised to visit an optometrist for more aggressive treatment options, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or steroid eye drops, experts suggest.

“While long-term or permanent problems are very rare, the possibility does exist for permanent scarring to occur as a result of infection or injury to the eyes,” Pierce said.

Protecting your eyes from wildfire smoke

To shield the eye from irritation, safety goggles and sunglasses should help minimize the impact of wildfire smoke and its irritants, according to Pierce.

Limiting time outdoors is another recommended solution. The American Optometric Association suggest keeping windows and doors closed and ensuring that vehicle and home air conditioners are set to recirculate so outside air isn't drawn inward. Running a humidifier may also help.

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If you’ve been outdoors, experts advise taking a shower as soon as possible to remove ash and other fine particulate matter from the skin, as well as donning a change of clothes afterward.

For eyes that are already showing symptoms, frequent use of artificial tears can help keep the eyes moist as well as flush irritants out of the eyes, and over-the-counter allergy drops can help with mild inflammation, said Pierce.

Practicing good hygiene is also essential, particularly for contact lens wearers. “When there’s a high exposure to wildfire smoke, the better choice would be to not wear contact lenses and wear spectacles instead,” Pierce said.

Contact lens wearers may suffer discomfort or even slight inflammation associated with the increased particle matter in the air, according to the American Optometric Association.

Experts advise adhering to your lens replacement and cleaning schedule, washing and drying your hands before handling your lenses and never rinsing them in water.

Sleeping in contact lenses after wildfire smoke exposure is also not advised. “Fine particulates can get under the lenses and cause major irritation and even loss of vision,” Pierce warned.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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