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Dry eyes and frostbite: How do I stop them this winter?

The question: What can I do about my dry eyes? I wear glasses because I'm near-sighted and I've found that my eyes feel really dry this winter. Why do you think that's happening?

The answer: We're all familiar with our skin getting dry and rough in the colder months; our eyes are also vulnerable to the effects of temperature drops.

Dry eyes can occur if you don't produce enough tears, or if the tears are poor quality and don't sufficiently lubricate them. Exposure to cold weather and wind can dry out the eyes by causing tears to evaporate too quickly. When dry, your eyes can become gritty and uncomfortable.

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To combat the problem this winter, consider using a humidifier in your home or workplace to add moisture to dry air. It's great that you already wear glasses, since they help protect your eyes on windy days. If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, take frequent "eye breaks" as keeping your vision focused for long periods of time can dry them out as well.

You can also try using artificial tears, which can be bought over the counter at your pharmacy, to help relieve symptoms. You should also check your glasses: The wrong prescription can cause eye strain and further irritate the eyes. A visit to the optometrist may be helpful to ensure that your prescription is still the right one for you.

If you find that your dry eyes are not responding to these simple solutions, get checked out by your doctor to rule out more serious causes. Other causes of dry eyes can include certain drugs, such as blood-pressure medication, antidepressants and acne treatments, as well as medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disease, eyelid problems and connective tissue disorders.

The question: What should I do if I think I have frostbite? I stupidly left my gloves at work one day and had to walk home for an hour in the freezing cold. My left pinky finger still feels cold half a day later. Do I have frostbite?

The answer: Frostbite can happen when we are exposed to very cold temperatures and our skin and underlying tissues freeze. The most common areas of the body to be affected are smaller, more exposed parts such as the hands, feet, nose and ears.

From your description of your symptoms, it certainly sounds like you have frostbite of your pinky finger. For some people, they may also notice that the skin changes colour to a paler shade and the texture can feel harder. There can also be symptoms of numbness or burning in the affected area and, in more serious cases, blistering can occur.

For mild frostbite, when the skin is cold or numb, the main treatment is gentle and gradual warming. Place the frostbitten area in warm water (40 to 42 C). Avoid using direct heat such as a fireplace, heat lamp or stove, as they can cause burns, and your already-numb skin that won't be able to feel it.

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With more severe frostbite, the freeze goes deeper than superficial skin and can be harder to treat. For this stage of frostbite, there can also be either severe pain or loss of sensation and blistering. The tissue can die and become black and hard.

If, despite warming your hand, you still experience numbness or pain, or you experience any of the more serious signs of severe frostbite, seek immediate medical attention – the damage to the skin and nerves can be permanent.

Canadian winters can be bitterly cold, so it's important to protect yourself from frostbite by covering up exposed skin with gloves, hats and scarves for the face. If the temperature drops, limit the time spent outdoors, and remove wet clothing quickly when you come indoors to avoid prolonged exposure to cold.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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