Eye Strain and Allergies

Electronic Eye Strain

By Mark Concannon

Advances in technology may boost our productivity in the workplace, but increasing evidence shows those advances also are making our collective eyesight worse.

As many offices now focus nearly their entire workflow on employees sitting at cubicles staring for hours at electronic screen displays, a new form of eye strain called computer vision syndrome is being diagnosed and treated by optometrists across the country.

“I see it a lot more, it’s pretty common now,” says Dr. Brian McGinley, an optometrist at Optix on Downer in Milwaukee. “I definitely see patients (with that issue) every week.”

“That’s usually part of the discussion in a normal eye exam,” says Dr. Wanda Martinez, a comprehensive ophthalmologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin Eye Institute. “Are you driving OK? Are you reading OK? I also ask about the computer — is that a problem?”

“It’s not a condition of the older generation. Patients in their 60s, 70s and 80s didn’t have this kind of problem that our generation has.”

A recent study shows that between 50 and 90 percent of people who work at a computer have some symptoms of eye trouble. Computer vision syndrome is not unlike other work-related repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. 

As computer use increased exponentially in recent years, an increase in eye strain was inevitable. “The eye muscle is a fluid system,” says McGinley. “A lot of people have to focus on the computer screen for 10 straight hours. After a while, that system becomes locked up. It can get into almost like a spasm in the sense that you start to lose some of the flexibility.”

“People focus intently on information that passes by so quickly,” says Martinez. “The eyes get tired and dry.”

After long hours on the computer, vision can get blurry, says McGinley. And there’s no set time when the condition will present itself. That largely depends on an individual’s overall eye health.

People who struggle with the condition vary in age, but the most common age group being treated for computer vision syndrome is 18 to 35, says McGinley.

Work produced on personal computers, laptops, tablets, phones and yet undiscovered devices is not likely to go away anytime soon. But there are ways to lessen eye strain at the office.

“The No. 1 thing is to try to change your focus, change your focus from the near proximal computer screen to far (with a vantage point of 18 to 22 inches from the screen depending on the type and size of the screen.) Get up and take breaks if possible,” says McGinley.

“Breaks are important,” agrees Martinez. “You need to step away, look away and blink. Not blinking often, focusing on the computer, you get your eyes dry.”

Try anti-glare computer screens and changes in lighting — nonfluorescent, softer lighting is best. Special glasses and lenses also can help ease the stress of extended computer viewing.

“A lot of cases we can help with glasses,” says McGinley, who recommends adjusting glare, lighting and viewing distance before exploring special glasses. “For some people, different eye drops can help. You’re sitting there staring, not blinking as much and eyes can dry out.”

Martinez recommends keeping a bottle of artificial tears handy to combat dryness and says reading glasses are not ideal for computer screen viewing.

“Computer distance glasses that are purchased over the counter generally should be weaker than reading glasses, about 1 diopter (the unit of measurement) weaker. If you’re using plus-2.50 for reading, you should use plus-1.50 for computers.” says Martinez, who adds that anyone with prescription reading glasses could have computer glasses made to fit their individual eyesight.

Even something as simple as a change in font style to create a more vision-friendly contrast in letters can make a big difference. 

If you spend much of your day looking at computer screens and begin experiencing headaches or eye strain, you should see your optometrist, says McGinley. “There will be certain tests to see how bad it is, if the accommodation of the focusing system is compromised due to all of this excessive computer use over the years.”

“If you address it daily you won’t have those days where you can’t stand it  and your day will be more comfortable,” say Martinez. 

A Little Dirt Won’t Hurt

By JoAnn Petaschnick

Babies and toddlers can cough, sneeze and wheeze through the allergy season just like adults. In fact, the first year of life is a critical period in the development of the immune system, and especially in the development of allergies and asthma. “The biggest risk seems to be your family history, because there is a genetic predisposition to allergy,” says Dr. Melissa A.M. Hertler, director of the allergy program at Wheaton Franciscan’s Sinus Care Institute in Wauwatosa. 

The newest data seems to support the protective effect of exposure to some allergens and bacteria in the first year. “There’s the theory that exposing children to certain things that cause allergies can help build their immune systems,” Hertler says. “Studies have shown that children raised on farms have a lower risk of allergies and asthma because they have their immune systems stimulated a little more, while children raised in urban environments are at much higher risk.” 

According to the “Hygiene Hypothesis,” there’s an increasing rate of allergies and asthma as a direct result of kids’ decreased exposure to bacteria because of our improved hygiene and cleanliness of our homes. “It appears that there may be a benefit to early exposure to some pet and rodent dander, and bacteria,” Hertler says. “As practical advice to parents, it is prudent to avoid exposing your child to tobacco smoke or significant pollution, and although we don’t know the exact combination of allergens and bacteria, a little dirt won’t hurt!” 

Allergy Tablets Are Alternative to Needles

By JoAnn Petaschnick

About 20 out of every 100 people in the United States have allergies, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. And about 1 in 12 Americans have asthma, which can be triggered by an allergy. Many of those people with allergies and asthma rely on injections to get relief. 

But there’s a new player in town — tablets that could take the place of shots, which require frequent trips to the doctor. “There are now three FDA-approved sublingual tablets that dissolve under the tongue that contain either grass pollen antigen or ragweed pollen allergen, which stimulate an immune response,” says Dr. Melissa A.M. Hertler, director of the allergy program at Wheaton Franciscan’s Sinus Care Institute in Wauwatosa. “These pills are designed as an alternative to injections, and are nearly as effective,” she says. 

The pills aren’t for everyone.“In Wisconsin, many people have allergies to more than just grass or ragweed pollens; they have multiple allergies, and these new pills don’t address that, whereas the injections do,” says Dr. Terry Graves, board-certified allergist with Asthma & Allergy Centers in Milwaukee. “People with poorly controlled asthma are not good candidates. A good candidate would be someone with a severe ragweed allergy that lasts throughout the season, especially if they don’t
like needles.” 

The pills mean fewer doctor visits. “People come in for the first dose and they take them every day after that at home,” Graves says. “We trust that people will continue to take them as they should,” he says, noting that he has patients who use the pills.

On the horizon are sublingual allergy drops, now being used in Europe. “These contain one or several different allergens given daily at home,” Hertler says. These pills or drops are not the magic cure, but “they can be an effective alternative for some people,” she says.