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Widespread use of face masks has been determined essential to combat COVID-19’s spread, but it is giving rise to a new phenomenon: increased reports of dry, uncomfortable eyes. Experts from the Centre for Ocular Research & Education (CORE) are advising eyecare professionals on how to recognize mask-associated dry eye (MADE) and methods to mitigate the condition.
Reports of MADE have circulated since early summer and a recent review concluded that eye dryness and irritation from mask wear may become a problem for a large percentage of the population.
“Face masks are crucial in the fight against COVID-19, and ECPs are well-positioned to provide patients with advice on appropriate wear in order to maximize eye comfort,” said Dr. Lyndon Jones, director of CORE. “Asking patients about their mask-wearing experiences and providing a few helpful tips takes little time and can make a substantial difference.”
CORE was established in 1988 at the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry & Vision Science.
Masks significantly reduce the outward spread of air. However, exhaled air still needs to disperse; when a mask sits loosely against the face the likely route is upwards. This forces a stream of air over the surface of the eye, creating conditions that accelerate tear film evaporation, leading to dry spots on the ocular surface and discomfort.
In addition to worsening symptoms in patients with pre-existing dry eye disease, MADE can affect a wide-spectrum of others: the elderly who typically have a poorer quality tear film, contact lens wearers, and masked people working extended hours in air-conditioned settings and/or while using digital screens.
Beyond discomfort, MADE may encourage people to rub their eyes for temporary relief — raising the possibility of unwashed hands being brought to the face. In turn, this increases the likelihood of coronavirus infection through the mouth, nose, and to a lesser extent, the eye.
CORE suggests that ECPs consider incorporating three MADE-related actions into their examination lane protocols:
As illustrated in its new MADE infographic (available for download from COVIDEyeFacts.org), CORE recommends that mask wearers experiencing dry eye symptoms try straight-forward solutions:
CORE experts are also been quick to state that people should first check with their eye care practitioner for advice and to rule out other cases — a good approach with any new eye-related concern.
Jones is adamant that bringing more attention to MADE should not be used to support anti-mask wearing sentiments.
“Responsibly wearing a mask, even when having to contend with eye dryness, is a critical part of overcoming the global pandemic. The good news is that we understand MADE and can address it — an opportunity for ECPs to further communicate their knowledge and ongoing value to patients at a time when sound, scientific guidance is needed more than ever,” he said.