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Staring at screens all day in quarantine? How to prevent eye problems

Doctors offer tips on how to soothe those tired, achy eyes.
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/ Source: TODAY

Life in quarantine can be tough on the eyes.

Between working from home, attending virtual school, shopping online and trying to stay sane with streaming and video games, Americans are staring at computers and devices more than ever.

As of March, U.S. adults spend more than 13 hours per day looking at screens, a big jump from the 10 hours per day of screen time reported in the second half of 2019, according to estimates by the company Eyesafe.

Since early March, the average U.S. household is also watching about nine more hours of TV a week than before — with viewership rising from about 57 hours to 66 hours — or an extra workday’s worth of content, Comcast reported this month. (Comcast is the parent company of TODAY.)

“My kids are up until midnight playing video games with their friends since it's one of the few ways to socialize these days,” Dr. Ninel Gregori, a retina specialist, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Miami and clinical spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told TODAY.

“The eyes could get drier, they can get more tired, and we also could be preventing ourselves from sleeping better because we’re exposed to the blue screens later into the night.”

Digital-related eye strain is marked by symptoms that can include dry, achy or even painful eyes; blurry vision; burning, stinging or redness; watery eyes or the sensation of having sand or another foreign body on the surface.

“When we use a screen, we don’t blink as much and that causes our eyes to dry out,” said Dr. Craig See, a corneal specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute in Ohio, noting the spike in screen time during the quarantine can “definitely” impact eye health.

The effects are usually temporary and don’t lead to lasting damage, the experts said.

Still, there are ways to soothe your eyes and boost your vision:

Remember to blink:

Blinking distributes tears all over the surface of the eye. But looking at something intently leads to less blinking, which means you’re not re-moisturizing your eyes as frequently, Gregori said.

Vision that changes with a blink is almost always due to dry eye, See noted.

Take a 20-20-20 break:

Every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advised.

It’s a bit like getting up and stretching — except this is stretching the little eye muscles that are working hard to help you to focus on something close up. Switching your focus to a point farther away lets them relax, Gregori said.

Even those 20 seconds can make a difference, See said. “It also encourages you to take a break, get up and stretch your legs,” he added. As people get older, eye muscles have to work harder to focus close up, so if you’re over 40, reading glasses can ease the strain on the eyes.

Set up your screen properly:

Make sure you’re looking level or slightly down at a computer screen.

“If your screen is too high, looking up will make you feel tired and might make the eyes dry out more easily,” See said. “When you look up, your eyes are more wide open — the upper eye lid opens a little more — so you end up having the lower part of your eye more exposed to the air.”

Constantly looking down, on the other hand, can lead to neck strain.

Good contrast is also important. Opt for black letters on white background or the opposite, and don’t sit with a bright window behind you, which will cause glare on the screen, See advised.

Use artificial tears if needed:

Eye drops make you blink when you put them in and they add moisture.

“I always keep a bottle of artificial tears near my computer and have been using it with more regularity lately,” Gregori said.

Go for over-the-counter artificial tears, but don’t use the kind that promise to “get the red out” because they contain a medication your eyes will adapt to, See advised. You may end up becoming dependent on it to keep the redness out.

You can use preservative-free artificial tears as often as you like, but if you need the drops more than five times a day, consult an eye doctor to figure out if there’s a problem, See said.

Use a hot compress on the eyelids:

Oil glands in the eyelids help lubricate the surface of the eye and keep tears from evaporating. Applying some heat on the eyelid can open up those oil glands and help with dry eye, See noted.

Washcloths cool off very quickly so he recommended buying a heat mask that can be warmed in the microwave. To make sure the mask is not too hot, test it on your hand before putting it on your face.

“It’s a safe way to treat dry eye and it also forces you to close your eyes for a few minutes and relax,” he said.

Keep the mask on until it doesn’t feel hot anymore, about five to 10 minutes.

Switch to warmer screen tones at night:

There’s less blue light in the natural environment in the evening, which signals the brain to start producing more melatonin and prepare for sleep, Gregori said. Blue light from screens affects that process, so she changes the color of her screens to warmer tones towards the evening. It’s very important for children, she noted.

Many devices, including Apple’s “Night Shift” and Microsoft’s “Night light,” offer this easier-on-the-eyes option.

Get ready to see your eye doctor:

Many clinics are still closed, but that may change soon in parts of the country.

“We’ve seen a lot less desire from patients to come to our offices for routine care. I think that’s going to change once we reopen and there’s probably going to be a surge for needing glasses and routine exams,” Gregori said.