Vision problems profoundly impact the learning experience. Accordingly, it is vital that educational institutions provide the right resources and accommodations for affected students so that they are well-positioned for success, as well as for better eye health over the long term.

What Are Some Common Vision Problems Among College Students?

Although vision problems are most commonly associated with aging and with specific types of eye infections, the unique environment at a college or university can also cause and exacerbate certain vision conditions. Being a post-secondary student means being exposed to specific pressures known to worsen eye strain and also increase the possibility of infection.

For example: In addition to the time they already spend on devices in their personal time, students often must log considerable screen time to complete their work. All of this viewing can take its toll.

A Closer Look at Eye Strain

An Annals of Medical and Health Science Research study of 500 university students – with a mean age of 20.4 years and a chi-squared test to determine statistically significant differences in the occurrences of their conditions – found that a majority of participants reported eye-related problems related to prolonged periods of device use:

  • Just over half (54.8%) said that they had burning sensations in their eyes after sustained screen time.
  • A similar share of students (53.3%) also reported headaches, a common effect of eye strain caused by improper focusing.
  • 48.4% said they had tired eyes, which can involve excessive dryness, itchiness and general discomfort.

Among the population of all computer users, digital eye strain (also known as computer vision syndrome) is already common – a 2018 analysis in the British Medical Journal estimated its general prevalence at 50%. But as the above study and other investigations have revealed, rates may be even higher among college students.

In 2019, the Athens, Ohio-based paper The Post polled 50 Ohio University students and found that they spent a mean of 4 hours and 25 minutes per day just on their phones. That was almost an hour longer than the U.S. national reported in an eMarketer survey the year before, and a key indicator of how easily eye strain can affect college students. 

Not only are students more likely than other populations to look at screens throughout the day, but they also may struggle to get sufficient sleep and manage the stress of their workloads, which can contribute to eye strain, too. Fortunately, eye strain is manageable.

Eye strain itself is not a permanent condition, although in some cases it may indicate or contribute to a more serious underlying condition. Its common symptoms can be treated with a combination of self-directed actions and consultations with an eyecare professional as necessary. Here’s what students should look out for and what they can do in response:

Causes of Eye Strain
  • Prolonged viewing of computer screens.
  • Infrequent blinking.
  • Light sensitivity.
  • Uncorrected vision (e.g., refractive error).
  • Proximity to HVAC systems blowing dry air.
  • Stress and fatigue.
  • Unclean contact lenses.
  • Screen glare.
  • Poor ergonomics and posture.
Common Symptoms
  • Dry, itchy or irritated eyes, especially with contacts.
  • Difficulty keeping eyes open.
  • Headaches and other physical discomfort.
  • Blurry or double vision.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Increased sensitivity to light.
  • Inability to read smaller text.
Effective Treatments
  • 20/20/20 rule: Take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20+ feet away.
  • Adjust screen brightness and contrast.
  • Use glasses with blue light filtering.
  • Sit in an ergonomic chair with good posture.
  • Practice good hygiene with contact lenses.
  • Consult an eye care professional.

The Elevated Risk of Eye Infections on Campuses

College and university campuses are busy environments, with a lot of people cycling in and out on a regular basis and clustering in high-density spaces. All of this activity can increase the risk of various eye infections that cause vision problems.

Conjunctivitis

Commonly known as pink eye, conjunctivitis may be caused by viral or bacterial infection or allergic reaction. The viruses and bacteria that cause conjunctivitis are highly contagious, making college dormitories, cafeterias and gyms prime areas for spread. 

Herpes Keratitis

This infection is caused by the ubiquitous herpes simplex virus. Persons already infected with HSV may see it reactivated in the eye, resulting in pain and blurred vision, among other symptoms. 

Whereas conjunctivitis can often be prevented with sufficient care, herpes keratitis can be more challenging to manage:

Conjunctivitis
  • Avoid sharing makeup.
  • Wash hands regularly with soap.
  • Limit any touching of your eyes.
  • Use a clean towel for your face.
  • Clean contact lenses properly.
Herpes Keratitis
  • Don’t touch your eyes if you have active cold sore blisters.
  • Stop using steroid eye drops.
  • Consult an ophthalmologist if the condition recurs.

Examining General Vision Impairments

Beyond the conditions caused or worsened by the environmental factors discussed above, college students are also susceptible to general corrective and non-corrective vision problems, which may require accommodations from their institutions.

Non-Corrective Conditions

Low vision, legal blindness, and total blindness fit into this category. 

The American Foundation for the Blind defines low vision as visual acuity of 20/70 or worse, caused by eye disease and not capable of being corrected with regular eyeglasses, contacts, medicine, or surgery.

Legal blindness is visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better-seeing eye with the best possible vision correction in place.

In instances of total blindness, the person has no light perception. Such cases are relatively rare, accounting for less than one-sixth of all permanent eye disorders.

How many college students have these conditions? While there aren’t comprehensive statistics to answer that exact question, we can get a rough approximation of the scope of overall prevalence by looking at a few other numbers:

Overall, there are many current and future college students in need of educational resources and assistance to help with their visual impairments

Corrective Conditions

Refractive errors are the best-known corrective conditions, encompassing nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia), and astigmatism. Getting an eye exam is the most reliable way to determine the presence of these problems and get a prescription for the appropriate eyeglasses or contact lenses. Increasingly, both exams and prescription filling can be done online for a faster, more convenient experience.

Guarding against myopia in particular is important for college students, as educational attainment is positively correlated with rates of nearsightedness, according to a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Be sure to take breaks from reading or looking at a screen and to go outdoors regularly to reduce the risk of prolonged eye strain.

On top of corrective lenses prescribed in appropriate cases, a variety of pedagogical and technological solutions also exist for students with visual impairments of all kinds. 

What Resources Are Available for College Students With Vision Problems?

Pedagogical

Educational institutions may ensure that all facilities are accessible to students with disabilities, including ones involving vision. The curriculum and format of classes may be modified as well to give students a better learning experience along with sufficient time to complete all coursework. Notetakers and scribes may be made available to students, too.

Technological

Optical (e.g., magnifying glasses/eyeglasses) and non-optical (like certain lamps) options can help with low vision and legal blindness, while solutions like text-to-speech software are useful for avoiding the strain of prolonged screen reading. Specialized software like JAWS can similarly provide a speech or refreshable Braille output to assist with computerized reading.

Each college or university will offer its own unique set of resources. Eyecare professionals can also help diagnose impairments and recommend a way forward. If you need an online exam or a new set of contacts, get started today with our easy search and ordering process!

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