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Preventing Dry Eye During Travel  

Clear Eyes Ahead

Ready to hit the road – or the airways – soon? You’re not alone.  

Recent travel figures from ustravel.org reveal that 9 in 10 Americans plan to travel during the remaining months of 2022.  

These numbers should come as no surprise considering most Americans haven’t left their hometowns during the past two years due to COVID shutdowns. But now as restrictions ease, people are anxious to hit the road or to fly the not-so-friendly skies.  

It’s no secret that in today’s world, travel is considered a full-contact sport; with frequent delays, cancellations, and hordes of people clamoring to get where they’re going. 

Within this chaos, it’s wise to pack not only your patience – but all the supplies needed to help your eyes adjust comfortably. Changes in schedule, environment and routine can all arouse an unwanted, irritated passenger: dry eye. 

Symptoms such as burning, stinging, and irritation are so common, it has been coined traveler’s dry eye. 

Suffering through dry eye is not to be taken lightly. Untreated dry eye can mean the difference between squinting through red, gritty eyes or seeing your new surroundings in their best light. 

Travel with Vision 

If you want to see the world, travel with your eyes in mind. 

Just as outerwear insulates the body from harsh external elements, your tears have protective properties to preserve vision.  

Every time you blink, a thin layer of moisture spreads across the cornea, the outermost surface of the eye. The smooth, pristine surface focuses light to see clearly. This active tear layer also protects the eye from irritants by washing away dust, pollen, and dirt. 

When you don’t make enough tears, or those tears don’t contain the right balance of elements – dry eye can occur and disrupt vision. 

The normal tear film consists of 3 distinct layers, each contributing to a healthy refractive surface.  

  • OIL (LIPID) LAYER: The outermost layer of the tear film. Its main purpose is to seal the tear film and reduce evaporation of natural tears.  
  • WATER (AQUEOUS) LAYER: The middle layer is comprised mostly of water. Its job is to lubricate the eye, wash away particles and prevent infection.  
  • MUCIN LAYER: The innermost layer to the eye’s surface is the mucin layer. Mucin allows the middle watery layer to spread evenly over the eye, keeping it moist and lubricated. Mucin also contains proteins and enzymes to nourish the cornea and keep tears bound to the surface.  

How to Avoid Dry, Irritated Eyes in Today’s Travel Climate 

Daily schedules change, sometimes dramatically with travel. It’s one of the reasons we go in the first place.  

Planning ahead will save aggravation later and help your eyes adjust comfortably to new environments and activities. Think about whether you will need extra contact lenses? Reading glasses? Sunglasses? Artificial tears? 

You’ll be glad to have everything on hand at your destination and not have to waste valuable time searching for pharmacies, eye doctors or optical shops on your long-awaited trip.  

  • CONTACTS: Contacts that typically are comfortable for a full day may no longer be capable of withstanding diverse activities. Your aqueous tear film may not be able to hold on through speed-based activities or in salty sea water. Ask your eye doctor if you should alter your current replacement cycle, consider a new material, or different oxygen permeability. 
  • TOPICAL OPHTHALMIC DROPS: Airplane cabins, with their low humidity, increase tear evaporation and intensify symptoms of dry eye. Compounding dry environments are (1) high-intensity air vents (2) increased screen time (3) napping in contacts. Artificial tears, gels, or ointments can be vital for restoring tear balance. Preservative-free options, with less chance of surface irritation, are preferable when possible.  
  • ANTIHISTAMINES: Those with allergies may unexpectedly have symptoms off from their usual season. Individuals who typically live in humid areas without dry eye may suddenly experience symptoms of irritation. While highly effective at blocking histamine, oral medications like diphenhydramine and loratadine also cause tear film instability, aggravating dry eye. 
  • DECONGESTANTS: Whether in pill, liquid, or nasal spray, decongestants are remarkably effective at reducing sinus symptoms from airplane cabin pressure or allergens. But like antihistamines, they contain ingredients such as phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine, and oxymetazoline that decrease tear production. Combined products with an antihistamine and a decongestant—are a double threat to dry eye acceleration. 
  • HYDRATION: Whole-body hydration increases the aqueous layer, building a better tear film that’s ready to sustain the elements of travel. Hydrating with nonalcoholic and noncaffeinated liquids before, during and after flying is critical. You may also want to ask your eye doctor about creating an optimal ocular surface by using artificial tears days or weeks prior to departure. 


If My Eyes are Dry – Why Do They Water All the Time? 

When one layer of the tear film gets out of whack, it disrupts a delicate balance.  

If you’ve ever experienced watery eyes that won’t stop tearing, you’re familiar with this phenomenon. When any layer of the tear film is lacking, the water layer overcompensates to protect the surface.  

“Think of it like this,” explains Dr S Rana, Board Certified Ophthalmologist at St Lucie Eye, “the cornea is the most powerful optical surface of the eye. What makes it a perfect reflective surface is the natural composition of oil on water, held together by mucin, refreshed through blinking of the eyelids.  

If you look at the corneal surface immediately after a blink, it’s perfection itself. 

Dry eye disrupts this cycle, causing micro injuries. The pristine outer surface of the eye becomes scratched, making it gritty. As dry eye advances, light reflects abnormally causing blurred vision and an increased sensitivity to light. 

The longer dry eye goes untreated, it can significantly alter your visual acuity – sometimes permanently,” cautions Dr Rana.