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Eye Strain from Fluorescent Lights

Eye Strain from Fluorescent Lights

If you spend a lot of time working or reading in a room that is lit by fluorescent lights, you may begin to experience headaches, and you may notice that your eyes become watery, blurry and sensitive. These are all signs that you have eye strain.

What are fluorescent lights?

To understand eye strain from fluorescent lights better, it’s useful to understand exactly how fluorescent lights work.

In very basic terms, what’s happening inside a fluorescent glass tube is that gases (or more especially, the electric current inside gases) are coming into contact with mercury. This causes a reaction that produces an ultraviolet (UV) light, which is invisible to the human eye.

But what happens is that the UV light makes the phosphor powder coating the inside of the tube glow. This results in a bright white light that we can see – otherwise known as a fluorescent light.

Fluorescent lights are sometimes preferred to incandescent lights and light emitting diode (LED) lights because they last a long time and are energy efficient, both of which can help reduce long-term costs.

That’s why they are so often favoured in offices, schools and other workplaces.

Eye strain from fluorescent lights

And while fluorescent lights have certain advantages, they have a number of disadvantages too, one of which is that they can cause eye strain.

So how does eye strain from fluorescent lights happen?

Well, one of the main problems with fluorescent lights (and in particular, compact fluorescent lights or ‘CFLs’) is that they emit ultraviolet radiation. There are different theories about the effect UV radiation can have on our health. But one Canadian study, carried out by Trent University, proves that it can, in fact, be damaging to our eyes.

And if you’re working for long hours at a computer in a room that is lit by fluorescent lights, your eyes will also be facing the blue light given off by computer screens, making the situation even worse.

The second problem with fluorescent lights is that they flicker.

There is a mechanism inside fluorescent lights called a ballast. This regulates the electric current, and without it, the light would keep getting brighter until it quickly burnt out. But if the ballast doesn’t have enough electricity to keep the glow steady, then the light can flicker.

To illustrate this point, you might notice that when you turn a fluorescent light on for the first time in a day, it flickers a number of times first. But then the second time you turn it on, it flickers a little less. And the next time, it doesn’t flicker at all. This is the ballast warming up.

Even once the light has warmed up, some people will still be aware of the flickering bulb. This is because the ballast actually pulses on and off. This happens so quickly that most people cannot see it.

But some are extremely sensitive to light, and so will be receptive to the continual pulsing of the ballast. This can result in a strobe-lighting effect, even if it’s very subtle.

Symptoms of eye strain from fluorescent lights

If you do develop eye strain as a result of fluorescent lights, you may start to experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Watery eyes
  • Headaches
  • Light sensitivity
  • Difficulty focusing

These symptoms vary from person to person and are most common amongst people whose work environment is fitted with fluorescent lights, as they will have a greater exposure.

How to reduce eye strain from fluorescent lights

If you are suffering eye strain from fluorescent lights, is there anything you can do about it?

Well the best thing to do, of course, is to remove the problem altogether. If you’re in control of the light fittings in your home or workspace, explore options that prevent eye strain.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have fluorescent lights. Instead, you should opt for the new fluorescent lights that have electronic ballasts, rather than magnetic ballasts, as this produces a flicker that is less noticeable.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of being able to pick and choose? Perhaps you’re working somewhere that has fluorescent lights, and you don’t feel you can ask your boss to refit the entire office? If so, you might think that not much can be done. But actually, you can try doing things like will minimize the glare. This might include:

  • Using anti-glare glasses
  • Setting up your workstation so that your computer screen is not directly below a light (ideally, it should be at a 90-degree angle to the light and the window)
  • Fitting your monitor or electrical device with an anti-glare screen
  • Resting your eyes frequently by looking away from the screen or document you’re reading and looking around the room

No matter what the cause, if you’re experiencing symptoms of eye strain, it’s a good idea to book in for an eye exam. This will allow an eye doctor to assess the health of your eyes and recommend ways to reduce your symptoms. This might include the use of prescription lenses with an anti-glare feature.

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