Edmonton skyline during a period of heavy wildfire smoke.

When wildfires occur and the air carries that unmistakable scent of burning, many people experience problems with their eyes and vision. The smoke can remain in the air for quite some time afterward, which may leave a lingering burning sensation in your eyes.

Vision problems and eye irritation can arise when the particles, chemicals, and irritants from smoke come into contact with the sensitive surface of your eyes.Smoke can cause inflammation, feelings of dryness, and other eye conditions. If you have any pre-existing vision conditions, they can worsen due to exposure to wildfire smoke.

If you’re experiencing discomfort in your eyes, you should consider scheduling an eye exam with your optometrist to learn what you can do to protect your eyes.

What Eye Problems Can Be Caused by Wildfire Smoke?

Wildfires can emit a great deal of smoke into the air. This spreads over an area, veiling the sky in a haze of ash and smoke particles. 

The spreading smoke from a wildfire can lead to many problems with your eyes, including:

  • Dry eye syndrome
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Allergic conjunctivitis (eye problems caused by allergic reactions to contaminants or irritants)
  • Corneal abrasions caused by particles in the smoke
  • Photophobia (light sensitivity)
  • Blurry vision

If you feel a burning sensation in your eyes around wildfire smoke, the reason is typically due to one or more of the above conditions developing. The irritants and particles carried by wildfire smoke can cause many different kinds of inflammation, and your eyes are extremely sensitive. It’s essential to do what you can to protect your eyes if you’re being exposed to wildfire smoke. 

Dry Eye Syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is an extremely common eye condition often caused by a problem with tear production. Your eyes may either produce poor-quality tears or simply not enough tears to properly protect and hydrate your eyes.

When there’s a wildfire, smoke particles and irritants can disrupt your natural tear film. This can lead to your tears evaporating too quickly or not functioning properly, causing your eyes to feel dry and irritated.

Dry eye disease often causes:

  • Feelings of grittiness or dryness on the surface of the eye
  • Redness and irritation
  • Temporarily blurry vision if the irritation is excessive
  • Watery eyes
  • Eye fatigue

Fortunately, dry eye syndrome can be treated with the help of your optometrist.


Commonly known as pink eye, conjunctivitis occurs when your eye has an inflammatory response on the surface of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane covering the front of your eye and the back of your eyelids. This tissue is thin, sensitive, and, extremely susceptible to inflammation and allergic responses.

Conjunctivitis often occurs when you’re exposed to wildfire smoke because the irritants carried in the smoke can cause an inflammatory response. Conjunctivitis often causes:

  • Swelling and redness
  • Excessive tearing
  • Light sensitivity
  • Eye irritation

Conjunctivitis can be treated with the help of an eye care professional.

Close up photo of a patient's right eye with conjuncivitis.


Smoke exposure can have all kinds of effects on the human body, including photophobia—also known as light sensitivity. When you’re exposed to wildfire smoke, several factors can cause photophobia, including the following:

  • Your eyes can become irritated and inflamed by the chemicals and pollutants in the smoke.
  • Your eyes may need to work harder to produce enough tears to protect themselves, which can lead to dry eye syndrome and light sensitivity.
  • There may be chemical components in the smoke that could cause damage to your eyes.

Photophobia can make it harder for your eyes to tolerate bright light, and you may find yourself squinting or blinking more often. 

Corneal Abrasions

Wildfire smoke can pose a bigger threat than just eye discomfort. The tiny particles carried by smoke can come into direct contact with the cornea, creating tiny, painful scratches. Often, this can cause foreign body sensation—the feeling that there’s an object stuck in the eye.

Corneal abrasions can be more complicated to treat, as the treatment needed can depend on the damage done by the smoke particles. You should visit an optometrist or medical professional as soon as you can if you believe you’re experiencing damage to your cornea.

Pre-Existing Eye Conditions

If you have an eye condition that often causes discomfort, it can worsen due to smoke exposure. Wildfire smoke carries a complex mixture of irritants, pollutants, and contaminants that can cause harm to your eyes.

Your vision can become blurrier, or you may temporarily experience light sensitivity. You might also experience dry eyes, irritation, redness, or swelling. This is often due to a combination of one or more conditions above mixing with the inflammation caused by wildfire smoke.

How to Avoid Eye Problems When Near a Wildfire

If you find yourself living in an area being affected by a wildfire—or an area where wildfires are common—it can help to invest in an air purifier or air filter. Stay indoors when there’s smoke in the air, and keep your windows and doors closed. However, it may be helpful to visit your optometrist for more personalized support if you notice that your eyes are still irritated.

When you have to go outside, try taking active measures to protect your eyes, including the following:

  • Wearing sunglasses or goggles to avoid direct exposure to smoke particles
  • Use preservative-free artificial tears
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes at all costs, as this can scratch them if there are any particles on the cornea

It is also important to stay hydrated and maintain good eye hygiene, as this can help flush out contaminants and harmful particles. If you can, try to monitor the air quality in your area through news or a weather app. 

Speak with an Eye Care Professional

At the end of the day, one of the most valuable things you can do is to seek the advice of an eye care professional. We are trained and experienced eye care providers, and we can give you up-to-date advice regarding your eyes and how to take care of them.

Wildfires can be a tragic natural disaster, but there are steps you can take to protect your eyes from their smoke. To speak with a caring optometrist today, book an appointment with us at River City Eye Care.