WASHINGTON -- There's yet another problem linked to too much screen time.
Heavy computer use has been associated with a number of vision problems -- so many that doctors refer to it as "computer vision syndrome." Researchers say staring at a computer screen for long periods of time can leave a user with symptoms similar to chronic dry eye disease.
A research team in Japan tested the tears from a group of office workers and found that those who looked at screens roughly eight hours a day had a big decrease in the MUC5AC protein found in the mucus layer -- or mucin -- that keeps the eye moist.
Dr. Binita Tailor, an optometrist with Eye Doctors of Washington, says she is not surprised by the findings. She says she has seen "a lot of dry eyes linked to a lot of increased computer usage."
A big part of the problem is that when users stare at a computer screen -- or even a smartphone or tablet -- for an extended period of time, their blink rate goes down.
"When we don't blink enough, and our blink rate decreases, we don't release enough mucin and that protein, and what that does is that creates dry eye symptoms," Tailor says.
Those symptoms include watery, itchy eyes, chronic redness and even soreness in the eyelids. Over-the-counter or prescription eye drops can help, and Tailor advises many of her patients "to leave a bottle near their desk."
The good news is dry eye linked to computer use is preventable, unlike chronic dry eye disease, which is the result of the body not being able to create enough tears.
The best prevention is simply to take periodic breaks from the computer screen.
Tailor tells her patients to stare away from the computer every 15 to 20 minutes. She endorses a technique where you walk away from your computer and briefly looks out of a window every so often. The practice not only increasing your blink rate, but also retrains your eyes to focus on something far away.
"That's a great habit to be in, especially if you are in front of a computer eight to 10 hours a day," Tailor says.
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