5 common eye health myths, debunked

By Maria Masters

You can do more to help protect your vision than you might think

Contrary to popular belief, eye problems aren’t an inevitable part of growing older. Sure, you may have to rely on reading glasses, but you aren’t destined to develop serious vision loss.
In fact, many of the same healthy lifestyle recommendations that can help prevent heart disease, certain cancers and weight gain can also help keep your eyes in top shape, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). These include habits  like protecting your eyes from the sun, avoiding cigarette smoke, getting plenty of sleep, eating your veggies and exercising regularly.
What’s more, even if you do develop an eye disease, having it detected early enough means doctors can often treat or correct it before serious vision loss sets in, says Aleksandra Rachitskaya, M.D., an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute.
Despite this promising outlook, about half of the estimated 93 million Americans who are at risk for serious vision loss haven’t visited an eye doctor in the past 12 months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Often, this is because they aren’t aware that they should be getting regular vision checkups.
Don’t let common misconceptions keep you from getting good eye care. We’ve got the truth on 5 common myths about eye health — plus ways to help keep your eyes healthy as you get older.

Myth #1: You don’t need an eye exam if your vision is fine

An eye exam is about much more than getting a prescription for glasses. “During a dilated eye exam, doctors look in the back of the eye for signs of conditions like diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, which, if not caught early enough, could potentially cause blindness,” says Dr. Rachitskaya. 

For example, with a condition such as diabetic retinopathy, the symptoms may not be noticeable until it has reached an advanced stage. “In some cases, it’s not until the late stages that the central vision is affected,” she says. “So you can have damage to the eye and not  notice that anything is up.”

What to know

If you’re 65 or older, the AAO recommends a dilated eye exam at least every one to two years. And if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or another condition that raises your risk for eye disease, you may need to go more often. Ask your doctor how often you should get your eyes checked.

Myth #2: There’s nothing you can do about cataracts

Cataracts are cloudy areas that develop in your eyes’ lenses. You might notice things looking hazy or blurred instead of crystal clear.

Normal eye changes that begin around age 40 are the most common cause, the AAO reports. In fact, more than half of Americans age 80 or older either have cataracts currently or have had them surgically removed, reports the National Eye Institute.

While you may not be able to prevent cataracts altogether, you can slow their progression by protecting your eyes from the sun, says Dr. Rachitskaya.

Another reason to keep up with regular eye checkups: Your eye doctor can detect cataracts early on during a dilated eye exam and, if necessary, refer you to a cataract surgeon.

Keep in mind, however, that not all cataracts need to be corrected with surgery, says Gene Kim, M.D., an ophthalmologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center. If the condition is in its early stages or doesn’t interfere too much with your daily routine, he says, your eye doctor may be able to correct your vision by adjusting the prescription of your lenses.

What to know

When you’re outdoors, wear sunglasses that block out 100% of UVA and UVB rays, she says. If you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, ask about lenses that have an anti-UV coating.

Myth #3: Redness-relieving drops are a good solution for eye discomfort

Anti-redness drops might seem like an obvious fix for irritated eyes, but they might be causing more harm than good. These drops work to fade redness by reducing swelling in your eyes’ blood vessels. However, Dr. Rachitskaya warns, “once the drops wear off, the swelling can come back even worse.”

What to know

Avoid products with “redness removal” claims on the label, she says. Instead, look for artificial tears. These drops contain ingredients that are similar to the compounds found in natural tears, so they can soothe eye irritation, minus the rebound effect. If your eyes are very sensitive, use preservative-free artificial tears, which are free of additives that can irritate your eyes even further, says Dr. Rachitskaya.

Another trick: Pop the artificial tears in the fridge before you use them. “Even if they don’t need to be refrigerated, that coolness can alleviate the sensation of irritation and grittiness,” she says.

Myth #4: Lots of screen time will hurt your vision

Did you ever tell your kids not to sit too close to the TV? Or now that you’re older and have lots of binge-worthy shows on your watch list, maybe you’ve even scolded yourself from time to time. It’s good advice, but not for the reason you might think.

“There’s no permanent damage to the eye that results from staring at a screen,” says Dr. Rachitskaya. However, because we tend to blink less when we get sucked into a TV show or can’t look away from a good book on an e-reader, we can experience digital eyestrain, headaches and dry eyes.

What to know

Dr. Rachitskaya advises giving your eyes a break by following the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen and turn your focus to an object that’s 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. You can also switch your smartphone or e-reader to night mode, which will help cut back on the eyestrain-inducing artificial light, adds Dr. Kim.

Myth #5: It’s OK to rub your eyes

The occasional eye rub is probably no big deal. But too much eye rubbing can transfer bacteria or viruses into your eye, which can result in an eye infection, says Dr. Rachitskaya. “A lot of infections, like viral conjunctivitis, are very contagious,” she adds.

As you get older, your eyes tend to be drier. This is due in part because the natural oil glands along your eyelash line don’t produce as much oil as they once did. Also, the natural tear glands in your eyes produce fewer tears. But rubbing your eyeballs isn’t the solution.

There’s a reason we rub our eyes, says Dr. Kim: “When we push on the natural oil glands in our eyelash line, it expresses oils into our eye. That helps lubricate the eye, so we feel some relief.” But it’s not the best habit to get into, he says.

What to know

A better way to soothe dryness, says Dr. Rachitskaya, is to use artificial tears or lubricating drops. Dr. Kim also suggests regularly cleaning your eyelashes (which can accumulate allergens and bacteria throughout the day) with an antibacterial eyelid cleansing wipe. You can find these at the pharmacy near the eye drops and contact lens solutions.

If you find yourself frequently wanting to rub your eyes, bring this up with your eye doctor. You may have eye allergies that are prompting the urge, notes the AAO. In this case, a proper diagnosis and treatment plan can bring welcome relief.

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