Chances are that at one point or another you’ve seen an ad or a commercial for a product designed to treat the symptoms of a condition known as dry eye. But while some of these ads and commercials can be almost comical in their presentation, dry eye is actually a serious problem for many people. In fact the National Eye Institute reports that nearly five million Americans 50 years of age and older are estimated to have dry eye. These numbers show that the need for dry eye treatments is very real – and not as funny as some commercials would have you think.
What is dry eye – and why is it so problematic?
“Dry eye” or “dry eyes” – or, as it’s known among doctors, dysfunctional tear syndrome – refers to a condition where an individual’s eyes are unable to produce the high quality tear film needed for good vision. This creates symptoms such as dryness, pain, and blurred vision, all of which can affect the cornea and conjunctiva.
The protection that tears provide is necessary for keeping an eye nourished, healthy and even infection free. Throughout the day our eyes are naturally kept lubricated and free of foreign particles or pathogens, all thanks to our habit of blinking. Each blink naturally spreads a small amount of moisture across the surface of our eyes; this helps to keep our eyes healthy and our vision clear.
When the eyes are “dry,” either because of a low volume or low quality tear production, this natural barrier that’s designed to keep our eyes healthy is compromised. Because dry eye removes this moisturizing barrier, it can be a potentially serious chronic issue if it’s not properly addressed.
What causes dry eye?
Dry eye occurs when our eyes can no longer maintain an adequate layer of tears. In many cases, dry eye results when one of the components normally found in tears is diminished. Tears are supposed to be composed of three parts, or layers: an oil (or lipid) layer, a water layer and mucin layer. These three components are each created in a different part of the eye; after they’re made, they work together to help keep your eyes healthy, smooth, clear and infection free. However, some people cannot produce tears that contain these three parts. When this happens, their tears often evaporate more quickly than they should, leading to dry eye symptoms.
There are, however, other potential causes of dry eye, including:
- Age: Dry eye is a progressive disease. As we age, more of us become symptomatic from dry eye. Also, symptoms get worse as we continue to age. A majority of people over the age of 65 experience dry eye symptoms to some degree.
- Medications: Some medications can reduce the amount of moisture that’s produced by your eyes. Common culprits include antihistamines, decongestants, blood pressure medications and antidepressants.
- Medical issues: Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren syndrome, diabetes and thyroid problems are more likely to have dry eye symptoms. Issues that cause inflammation of the eyes can also increase your chances of developing dry eye.
- Environmental factors: If you live in a city; if you deal with a windy or dry climate; or if you’re exposed to smoke on a regular basis, your eyes are more likely to dry out too quickly, leading to dry eye symptoms.
- Daily habits: Your daily habits – such as failing to blink when you stare at a computer screen all day long, smoking, or even wearing contacts – can increase your chances of developing dry eye. A good diet and proper hydration are also important.
What are the symptoms of dry eye?
People with dry eye can suffer from a range of mild to severe symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Persistent sensation of dryness
- Tearing, or watery eyes (Strange but true! Dry eye is the most common cause of tearing. It’s usually a sign that the patient is unable to produce the right consistency and/or amount of moisture)
- Irritation and/or pain and redness
- Eye fatigue, especially if it presents when you’re reading, watching TV, or doing computer work
- Sensitivity to light
- A gritty, scratchy or burning sensation in the eyes
- A sensation that something is in the eye (even if nothing is there)
- Blurred vision
In advanced cases of dry eye, people can suffer physical damage to the front surface of their eye and may even find that their vision is impaired permanently by the condition.
Can dry eye be treated?
Yes; while dry eye cannot be cured, there are over-the-counter and prescription treatments for it. These treatments can help return your eyes to a healthier and more comfortable state. Treating dry eye can also prevent it from getting worse. New research shows the importance of treatment to preserve the tear function we have. Ignoring dry eye now may just lead to worse problems later.
If you’re experiencing dry eye symptoms, your best bet is to meet with your eye doctor, and to let them properly examine and even test your eyes. This will give you a chance to discuss the severity of your dry eye, and it will ensure that you use the right dry eye treatment for you. This can also help ensure that your dry eye does not lead to more serious problems down the line.
Once you’ve met with your eye doctor, there are many treatment regimens that may be recommended for you. At Everett & Hurite, we focus on health and wellness treatments for dry eye, especially in early or mild cases. More advanced cases may warrant medications or procedures, but we will work with you to find a regimen that is tailored to your situation. Treatments that may be recommended for you may, include:
- Eye drops (either OTC or prescription): These can directly help to increase and improve moisture levels in your eyes.
- Ointments: These may be prescribed to help reduce swelling around the surface of the eye, or help people who aren’t getting enough relief from just using normal eye drops.
- Punctal occlusion or Punctal plugs: Should eye drops fail to alleviate your dry eye, doctors may recommend using one of these aids to slow drainage of tears from your eyes’ surface and increase the amount of moisture that remains on your eyes.
- Lipiflow: This procedure can help to clear out blocked oil glands in the eyelids, and can help you naturally protect your healthy tears.
- Self-care: Doing things like making efforts to blink regularly, creating a more humid home or work environment, taking nutritional supplements for eye health, and staying hydrated may help some cases of dry eye.
Though dry eye in an aggravating condition to live with, it’s also a manageable one. If you fear that you may be developing dry eye, we encourage you to visit with our staff ASAP so we can take a look and begin to help you see clearly and normally again – without interference!