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Minimizing Vision Problems in College A Student’s Guide to Eye Health and Wellness

Eye troubles are a common side effect of being a college student. Students spend so much time reading textbooks, writing papers, and staring at lighted screens – computers, social media, online gaming and tv/movie watching – it’s almost inevitable. Eye issues should not be ignored. College students can read on to learn the importance of paying attention to eye health, how to prevent eye issues and what to do if eye concerns arise.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Samuel D. Pierce O.D., President of the American Optometric Association

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Understanding Vision Problems & Their Impact on Student Success

88 percent of Americans know that digital devices can negatively affect their vision, and yet the average American still spends seven or more hours per day looking at their screens. (Source)

The average millennial spends nine hours per day on devices such as smartphones, tablets, LED monitors and flat-screen TV’s. (Source)

About 11 million Americans over age 12 do need vision correction. (Source)

Possibly the last thing on a college student’s mind is eye health. But the reality is that eye health should be near the top of a student’s to-do list to prevent vision issues that could negatively affect the academic and social experiences of their college years, and perhaps their lives beyond school.

Although vision generally remains stable during the young adult years, problems may develop without any obvious signs or symptoms. Add in the potential for college-induced eye strain and infections, and it is clear college students should pay attention to their vision.

The majority of the knowledge we have about the world around us comes through our eyes. Even though most people recognize how precious sight is, many are not taking the necessary steps to have optimal vision and to protect their eye health.

Dr. Samuel D. Pierce, O.D., President of the American Optometric Association

Common Eye Problems in College

Eye Strain

The most prevailing eye problem among college students is eye strain, a direct result of all the reading and computer use college life demands, usually for long periods of time and often in less-than-ideal lighting and ergonomic environments. Eye strain can cause eyes to be dry, watery, itchy, red, or irritated. Other symptoms include a burning sensation, blurry vision, light sensitivity and difficulty focusing. These symptoms can be accompanied by headaches; neck, shoulder or back pain, sleep issues, and overall fatigue.

The situation is exacerbated if a student already has minor, uncorrected vision problems. Even people with glasses or contacts may tilt their head or lean toward the screen to see better.

Also known as digital eye strain. The AOA defines it as a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use.

Computer vision syndrome is diagnosed through a comprehensive eye examination. Treatment can involve special glasses for computer viewing, vision therapy/eye exercises, and making changes in how you view the screen. These can include adjusting computer angle, seating position, lighting, adding an anti-glare screen filter, and frequent blinking and rest breaks.

The other big potential eye concern in college involves bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. Infectious eye diseases can spread quickly in the crowded classes, cafeterias, dorm rooms, gyms and other public spaces of a college or university.

  • Conjunctivitis Also known as Pink Eye, conjunctivitis occurs when infection strikes the eye surface and the inner surface of the eyelids. Eyes become red, swollen, inflamed and sore and can emit a discharge.

    Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious, and can spread by close personal contact, through the air by coughing and sneezing, and by touching an object or surface with germs on it then touching your eyes. (the third type, allergic conjunctivitis, is not infectious).

  • Herpes Keratitis A viral infection of the eye caused by herpes simplex virus. It is also very contagious and causes eye pain, redness, discharge and blurred vision. Left untreated, herpes keratitis can severely damage the eye.

Causes of Vision Problems

While many of the symptoms are temporary and ease after getting off the computer, some can suffer continued reduced vision, which, if not treated, can worsen over time.

Here are some more specific causes of eye problems in college:

  • Too much time in front of a computer
  • Studying and reading in poor lighting conditions, like low-light dorm room cramming session all-nighters
  • Glare on a computer screen
  • Being the wrong distance from a computer screen
  • Poor seating posture
  • Lack of blinking
  • Uncorrected vision problems
  • Not enough sleep
  • Poor diet
  • Inadequate hygiene measures, such as infrequent handwashing, rubbing eyes
  • Sharing make-up
  • Showering or swimming in contact lenses

A poorly designed classroom or study environment that includes improper lighting, uncomfortable seating, bad viewing angles and improper reading or working distances can add to the visual stress.

Dr. Samuel D. Pierce, O.D., President of the American Optometric Association

What College Students Should Do to Maintain Eye Health

Vision problems can greatly affect learning ability, a big reason why students in college should not be dismissive of their eye health. College students who give heed to their eye health care now may avoid potentially serious problems later. The following is a list of eye care tips college students might want to consider incorporating into their daily routines.

General

  • Periodic eye exams. They’re not just for senior citizens. AOA recommends college-age adults have an eye exam every two years, more often if at risk for eye problems due to a family history of eye disease, diabetes, or hypertension. See an eye doctor in between if your eyes bother you in any way. Early detection of potential problems is paramount. And make sure glasses or contacts prescriptions are up to date.

  • Blinking. This subtle act of closing and opening your eyes is important to keep eyes moist and refreshed. Artificial tears are an option if your eyes get dried out. Move to another seat if air vents are blowing in your face.

  • Try an eye massage. A good suggestion for any time your eyes feel tired but especially after staring at a book or screen for hours. Rub hands together until the friction warms them, then gently press against eyes to help relax the eye muscles.

  • Adjust the computer. Optimize to your liking the brightness, size of text font, monitor height, distance between you and computer.

  • Eliminate screen glare. Adjust room lighting and curtains or blinds, change computer location or use a glare reduction filter on your screen.

  • Proper posture. It can make a big difference in eye strain. Top of computer monitor should be just below eye level, feet flat on the floor, and arms at a 90-degree angle.

  • Try computer glasses. They’re designed specifically for ideal vision in the space between you and your computer.

  • Correct lighting. Overhead lighting might be too harsh and bright. On the other hand, low-light dorm room ambiance may be too dim. (Don’t study by flashlight.) Find the optimum illumination for your eye comfort.

  • Eat a balanced diet. Diet is important to eye health. Research indicates nutrition may prevent or delay age-related eye diseases. A healthy diet also reduces risk of diseases that can lead to eye troubles, such as hypertension and diabetes. Consider a daily multivitamin to fill nutritional gaps in your diet.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves blood circulation, increases oxygen levels to the eyes and helps remove toxins.

  • Protect eyes from the sun. Sun exposure can lead to vision loss and increase risk of certain types of cataracts and cancers of the eyelid. Protect yourself with hats, visors, and sunglasses that block out harmful rays.

  • Quit smoking. Better yet, don’t start. Smoking exposes eyes to high levels of dangerous chemicals and increases the risk for developing cataracts and macular degeneration.

  • Wash your hands. From handrails to handshakes to high-fives, everything you come into contact with in your daily life can be germ-laden. Touching or rubbing your eyes with unwashed hands is a surefire way to pick up an infection.

  • Don’t share make-up. Creamy or liquid eye make-up, especially, are breeding grounds for infections. Use your own and replace every three months.

  • Remember that water and contact lenses don’t mix. Do not shower, swim or get in a hot tub in contact lenses. Only use sterile disinfecting solution to store contacts – not water – and keep your case clean.

  • Go outside. Beside the benefits of fresh air, students who spend a lot of time studying indoors become at risk of becoming nearsighted. A study cited by AAO found than more than 50 percent of college graduates become nearsighted. Other research shows spending more time outdoors can protection vision from getting worse.

Quiz: Do You Need an Eye Exam?

Regular eye exams play a key role in eye health and vision problem prevention. Even if you don’t have obvious symptoms, you may still have underlying vision issues that only an eye doctor can detect. The quiz below can help you determine if you need to schedule an eye exam by asking a series of questions that can be indicative of eye issues, a non-eye-related health problem, or nothing at all. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it’s might be best to check with an eye doctor to find out if there’s anything to be concerned about.

Are your eyes red, dry or itchy?

Do you ever see spots, flashes of light, floaters or halos?

Are people or things, near or far, blurry?

Do you ever have double vision or wavy vision?

Do you experience eye strain, headaches and/or blurred vision after extended computer time?

Do you ever feel pressure behind your eyes?

Do you have frequent headaches?

Do you have difficulty driving at night?

Do you get motion sick, dizzy or have trouble following a moving target with your eyes?

Do you hold books or newspapers far away from your face or squint or close one eye to read them clearly?

Have you noticed changes in your vision, especially after an incident of head trauma?

Do you have diabetes or another health condition that affects your eyes, or have a family history of conditions like diabetes or glaucoma?

Apps, Programs and Vision Resources

A variety of apps and internet browser add-ons is available to help students keep their vision in tip-top shape and provide some assistance if it isn’t.

This list provides a peek at the options available, plus a couple for general health and fitness, so look a little further if one you fancy isn’t listed on your platform. Odds are it’s out there. Some are free, some require a fee, some have in-app purchases.

Contact Lens Tracker: Keep track of when you open a new set of reusable contact lenses and the number of uses so you know when it’s time to reorder. App features a large font on the main screen, so you can probably read it without your lenses.

eyeCare: Chrome users spending too much time in front of their computers will get periodic reminders to take a break, as well as suggestions for eye exercises.

EyeCBest: Help prevent eye strain with this browser extension that allows users to change the font, size and boldness of web site text with one click. Available for Safari and Chrome.

Eye Pro: Long stints staring at a computer interfere with normal eye moisture, which can create eye soreness and fatigue. This Windows app reminds you to take short breaks with blinking sessions and longer breaks featuring visual exercises.

F.lux: If staring at a bright screen day and night is getting to you, try F.lux. It adjusts the color and glow of your screen display to the time of day, like sunlight during the day and warm at night. It might even help you get more sleep. Available for Windows, Mac, iPhone.

iReader: Eliminate clutter when viewing news and other articles with this app for Chrome and Firefox. It strips out ads and extraneous layout and displays article in an easy-to-read, scrollable display.

Magnifying Class + Flashlight: No more struggling to read tiny text like menus and pill bottles, especially in low light, with this iPhone app magnifying glass with flashlight. The magnifier auto focuses the text and lets you zoom in and out for personalized optimum reading.

MyFitnessPal: Log your exercise, track your food, chart your progress, interact with fitness buddies – pretty much everything you need to get fit is available on this iPhone app.

Quit Now!: Stop smoking with the help of this android app. It tells you the time since your last drag, the money you’ve saved by not smoking, and your health progress as you stop smoking.

Stretchly: When you’re caught up in a computer video game or computer homework session it’s easy to forget to take a break. Stretchly displays regular on-screen messages with reminders to occasionally stand up, stretch your arms, or stare off into the distance. For Windows or Mac.

Vision Test: Evaluate your eyes with this iPhone app that features tests for visual acuity, astigmatism, color accuracy, and far-field vision. Also includes an optician finder and eye facts.

Additional Resources to Help Students Keep an Eye on Vision Health

Check out these web sites for more information and helpful tips about eye health, as well as general health, nutrition and fitness advice.

American Academy of Opthalamology: Start at this list of “six smart things college students should do for their eyes,” and then check out the section “Eye Health A-Z” and another section on tips and prevention suggestions to keep eyes in tip-top shape.

American Optometric Association: While the AOA web site presents much information on eye health, including answers to eye questions and a searchable database of optometrists, this page shines the spotlight on computer vision syndrome – what it is, how it’s diagnosed, and how it’s treated.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The Vision Health Initiative page on the CDC web site has all kinds of information on the basics of vision and eye health, preventing vision loss, and state and community eye health programs.

Ergonomic Trends: The 20-20-20 rule is front and center here, with an actual timer to remind you to take eye breaks at the computer, as well as a detailed and informative infographic on how to keep your eyes healthy.

Livestrong.com: This article outlines different ways college students can fit regular aerobic, strength training and stretching exercise into their hectic schedules. Ideas include dorm room workouts, workout buddies, and making use of the school’s fitness center, track and pool.

Medical News Today: Eating a varied diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins should ensure most people get the right nutrients for eye health. This article details the 10 best foods for eye health.

National Eye Institute: Describes simple steps for maintaining healthy eyes, from a comprehensive dilated eye exam to knowing your family’s health history to eating right.

USDA Nutrition at College: From the USDA, a page of nutritional articles aimed at college students, including tips for healthy eating in a dining hall, healthy choices to keep in a dorm mini-fridge and how to stay active on a college campus.