The eye is a delicate organ with a large and moist area exposed to the environment that makes it more susceptible to air pollution than other parts of the body. However, the response of the eyes to airborne pollutants ranges from no symptoms at all to severe irritation and chronic pain. Even when contact lenses are in use, the eyes are still more sensitive to these effects.

Factors that contribute to air pollution:

The severity of discomfort produced by air pollution is determined by the levels of hydrocarbons and nitric oxide in ambient air.

Some of the air pollutants that are commonly found in metropolitan cities include:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO)
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  • Arsenic, asbestos, benzene, lead, chlorofluorocarbons, particulate matter, and dioxin

Air pollution mainly occurs due to the irradiation of automobile (car) exhaust. A significant level of eye irritation occurs when exposed to such air pollution for up to four hours. 

The relationship between the particle size in automobile exhaust and the occurrence of eye irritation remains unclear; however, one researcher has indicated that below 0.2 microns, irritation is largely prevented. It is believed that the make and performance of the motor vehicle determine the emission of hydrocarbons and nitric oxide; however, individual hydrocarbon levels depend more upon the type of fuel used. Both these chemicals produce eye irritation equally.

Another study has shown some correlation between the levels of oxidants in the air and eye irritation at certain times of the year. The presence of aerosol is also suggested to be a critical factor. Oxidants can dissolve in the tear film and acidify it, further irritating the mucous membrane of the eye.

Symptoms in the eye:

Some of the symptoms that are frequently observed following ocular exposure to air pollution include:

  • Burning and redness sensations
  • Irritation
  • Watering
  • Discharge
  • Allergy with severe itching, redness, discharge, swelling of the eyes, and difficulty in opening the eyes
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Gritty sensation
  • Visual difficulties including refractive errors and impaired color vision
  • Cataracts
  • Cancers
  • Dry eye syndrome (DES) is the most frequent complaint among each of these symptoms, with the incidence of DES two times greater in women over the age of 50. The surface of the eye is inflamed and dry in DES, particularly when the patient wears contact lens. 
  • Individuals who are at a particularly high risk of these effects of air pollution exposure include those who remain outside for a long time.


The treatment of the eye symptoms of air pollutant exposure without the presence of an infection or allergy is simply to cool the eyes by washing them gently with clean water, followed by the application of a cool compress.

Lubricating eye drops and the use of sunglasses are also helpful options. Contact lenses and eye makeup should be avoided until the eyes are healed completely.


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