How to

25 January 2017

Why Do Our Eyes Water in Cold Weather?

Heading outside on a frozen morning in the depths of winter can be a highly unpleasant experience. If the cold alone isn’t enough to ruin your mood, you can always count on icy pavements, strong winds and any number of other meteorological mishaps to dampen your spirits. To make matters worse, once you’ve finally plucked up the courage to step out of your home in an attempt to navigate the now shiny smooth walk down the driveway to your car, your eyes begin to water so much that you can’t really see where you’re going until they decide to clear up a little. Five seconds and a misplaced step later and you’re sat looking embarrassed on a snow pile half way down your garden.

Many of our own bodies’ responses to the cold are now widely understood by the public at large; things such as shivering, for example, have a known and verifiable purpose and can substantially help when it comes to keeping us warm. One such response that still baffles many however is why exactly our eyes decide to fill up faster than the local pub on a Friday night whenever temperatures plummet to near-freezing levels. Surely the last thing you want when the air temperatures fall low enough to freeze your breath in front of you is a layer of water across your eyeballs?

Well, apparently not. As it turns out this rather tedious and annoying occurrence does actually serve multiple purposes – namely lubrication, minimisation of discomfort and maximisation of visibility (the latter surprised me, when I first step out into the cold my eyes water so quick that ‘maximum visibility’ isn’t really an option, but my eyes are far from an ideal control sample).

The reason as to why this response is needed primarily boils down to air conditions, as James Auran, M.D., chief of ophthalmology at New York's Harlem Hospital Center, explained to Greatist.

According to Auran, it’s both the wind and the lack of air moisture that causes our eyes to tear up in an effort to prevent them from drying out completely. This response can easily overwhelm your tear ducts, causing the signature waterfall down your cheeks. You may also be happy to know that your tears will also flow down your nose in such circumstances, so the accompanying nose-run isn’t quite as grim as first thought.

There are also a couple more variables which will have an effect on your eyes’ response to winter conditions. For example, brightness; the added glare from the light reflecting off of any snowfall, coupled with the low winter sun, causes excess irritation to increasingly sensitive eyes.

The length of your eyelashes will also play a part, with longer lashes funnelling in more air, thereby exaggerating these effects.

So, what can we do about it? Auran suggests simply donning a pair of glasses; these will create a sort of ‘micro-greenhouse’ effect between your eyes and the lenses, which should help to reduce any watering, even if it can’t be entirely prevented.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.