Why Do My Eyes Get Watery When It’s Cold Outside?

Insights from Dr. Erin Lally, MD, Ophthalmologist

As an ophthalmologist, I often encounter patients curious as to why their get teary and watery during cold weather. This phenomenon, while seemingly peculiar, has a straightforward explanation grounded in the body’s natural protective mechanisms.

The Body’s Response to Cold

When exposed to cold temperatures, the body initiates several responses to protect itself.

One of these responses involves the eyes. Cold air is typically drier than warm air, and this dryness can lead to irritation of the eye’s surface. To counteract this irritation and to maintain lubrication and protection of the ocular surface, two physiologic processes occur that result in increased tearing:

  1. The eyes produce more tears. This increased tear production is a reflex action intended to keep the eyes moist and comfortable.
  2. The nasolacrimal duct constricts to slow the draining of tears.

Let’s delve deeper into both responses to better understand why our eyes get watery in cold environments.

The Role of Tears

The tear film is a complex structure that covers the surface of the eye, maintaining its health and providing optical clarity.

Tears are not merely water; they are a complex mixture of fatty oils, water, and mucus.  Each layer of the tear film has a specific function and plays a vital role in keeping the surface of the eye healthy and optimizing visual quality. Let’s look at each layer of the tear film to better understand its functionality.

Lipid (oil) layer:

This outermost layer is produced by the meibomian glands located in the eyelids. The lipid layer helps prevent evaporation of the tear film and provides a smooth surface for the tears to spread across the eye. It also helps maintain tear stability.

Aqueous (watery) layer:

The middle layer is the largest and consists mainly of water, electrolytes, and proteins. The lacrimal glands produce this layer, which helps nourish and protect the cornea, the clear front part of the eye.

Mucin layer:

The innermost layer is produced by goblet cells in the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the front part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids. The mucin layer helps the tear film adhere to the cornea and spread evenly, ensuring a stable tear film.

This specific composition allows tears to nourish the eyes, provide protection from infection, and create a smooth surface that contributes to clear vision. When the eyes are exposed to harsh conditions, such as cold and windy environments, the tear film works to counterbalance the drying effects and to shield the eyes from debris and other irritants.

The Role of the Nasolacrimal Duct

Another factor contributing to teary eyes in cold weather is the nasolacrimal duct’s functionality. This duct drains tears from the eyes into the nasal cavity. Cold temperatures can cause this duct to constrict, slowing down tear drainage. Consequently, tears may accumulate more readily, leading to the sensation of overly watery eyes.

Tips To Cope With Watery Eyes In Cold Weather

While experiencing teary eyes in cold weather is generally normal and indicates that your eyes are effectively responding to environmental stresses, there are steps you can take to minimize discomfort:

  • Wear protective eyewear: Sunglasses or goggles can shield your eyes from cold winds and reduce tear evaporation.
  • Stay hydrated: Adequate hydration contributes to healthy tear production.
  • Use artificial tears: While seemingly counterintuitive to add tears to an already overly-teary eye, the use over-the-counter lubricating eye drops can help maintain eye moisture in dry conditions but supplementing the eye’s natural tear film.
  • Blink regularly: Blinking spreads the tear film evenly over the eye surface, aiding in eye comfort and vision clarity.

Conclusion

In summary, the phenomenon of eyes becoming teary in cold weather is a testament to the body’s remarkable ability to adapt and protect itself against environmental challenges. It showcases the intricate balance the body maintains to ensure the eyes remain healthy and functioning optimally. As always, if you have concerns about your eye health or experience excessive tearing regardless of the weather, I recommend consulting with an ophthalmologist to explore personalized care and treatment options.

Dr. Erin Lally, MD
Board Certified Ophthalmologist
Specialist in Anterior Segment and Retina

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