What is dry eye?
Dry eye is a condition that occurs when not enough tears are produced, or the tears that are produced are of poor quality. Tears are important because they help keep the surface of the eye healthy and smooth to maintain good vision and comfort. Dry eye disease is commonly a chronic condition. Dry eye is thought to affect millions of people in the United States, with the likelihood of it occurring increasing dramatically with age. It also occurs more frequently in women than in men. In all likelihood you know someone who deals with dry eye on a daily basis, and may even experience it yourself.
But what does dry eye syndrome feel like? If you suspect that you may suffer from dry eye syndrome read on to learn about dry eye symptoms, causes, treatments, and why tears are so important!
Dry Eye Syndrome symptoms include:
- stinging, burning and itching
- a sandy or gritty feeling, or feeling like something is in the eye
- blurred vision
- light sensitivity
- eye fatigue
- excess watering/tearing
- eye pain
- contact lens irritation/intolerance, a need for frequent use of eye drops
Patients suffering from dry eye may not even realize that their eye is dry. Dry eye symptoms are uncomfortable, but only in some cases does the eye truly feel dry. Dry eye syndrome often feels like something is stuck in the eye. Your eye may burn or itch and vision may be blurry. The eye can appear red and you may experience blurred vision or sensitivity to light. Many people find out that they suffer from dry eye disease when they try to wear contact lenses for the first time and realize that their eyes are too dry to wear them comfortably. If you constantly need to use eye drops while wearing your contacts, or your contacts stick to the surface of your eye uncomfortably, you may suffer from dry eye. Understanding the importance of tears is crucial to understanding dry eye syndrome.
Why are tears so important?
The cornea is the transparent layer on the front of the eye. It allows light into the eye and also allows the eye to focus. There are no blood vessels in the cornea so it absorbs its nutrients from tears and from the aqueous humor which lies behind the cornea. Every blink that we take distributes tears across the surface of the cornea to keep the eye moist. The tears also aid in healing of any wounds on the surface of the eye and protect against infection. Tears are made up of oils, water, proteins, and mucus. If your tears do not adequately moisten and protect the cornea, you will suffer from the above mentioned symptoms.
Dry Eye Syndrome Causes:
The best way to determine the cause of your dry eye syndrome is to consult your eye care professional. Your eye doctor will be able to examine your eyes and also take other factors into consideration including the following causes:
- Medications (antidepressants, birth control pills, antihistamines, decongestants, certain blood pressure medications, hormone replacement): ingredients in these medications can cause decreased tear production in some patients
- Medical conditions (autoimmune disease, diabetes, thyroid disorders, rosacea): many medical conditions are associated with dry eye disease
- Menopause and pregnancy: hormonal changes during menopause and pregnancy have been linked to dry eye syndrome
- Increasing age: the risk of developing dry eye syndrome increases with increasing age. Older patients suffer from dry eye syndrome at a much higher rate.
- Environment (dry climates, fans, air conditioning, smoking, extended computer use): environmental factors can drastically change tear production. These factors include both weather and physical environmental factors that may dry out the surface of the eye, as well as behavior. Looking at a screen for too long and not blinking enough can lead to dry eye.
- LASIK surgery: some patients experience temporary dry eye syndrome after LASIK surgery.
Once your eye doctor has determined the cause of your dry eye disease, they will be able to devise a treatment plan. Treatments vary from patient to patient and are personalized based upon your symptoms, causes, and medical history.
Dry Eye Syndrome Treatment
Just as there are many different things that can cause dry eye, there are also many different treatments that can reduce dry eye symptoms. The best dry eye treatment for you will depend upon what specific condition is causing your dry eye. The following treatments can reduce symptoms of dry eye:
- lubricating eye drops and ointments, preservative-free eye drops (artificial tears)
- prescription drops to decrease inflammation or increase tear production (Restasis)
- punctal plugs (these plug your tear ducts to slow the drainage of your tears)
- warm compresses and eyelid scrubs
- fish oil/omega 3 supplements
- adjust or eliminate medications that have side effects of dry eye
- increase humidity in dry environments with a humidifier
- drink plenty of water
- take breaks when using the computer
- blinking more often
There are many different options for treating dry eye syndrome. Dry eye treatment will be tailored specifically to your eyes. Your eye care provider can diagnose the type of dry eye that you have and what treatment is most appropriate, whether it be one single solution or a combination of several different methods. With the proper treatment, symptoms can be greatly reduced in many patients. Using artificial tears is a very common treatment plan that can be combined with other treatments. Artificial tears are over the counter eye drops that supplement your body’s natural tears and lubricate the surface of the eyes when your tears are not able to do so on their own. These are a non-invasive way to treat dry eye, while punctal plugs are a bit more invasive. These plugs fill your tear ducts to slow or prevent tear drainage, leading to more moisture remaining on the surface of the eye. Warm compresses moisten the surface of the eye. You can also increase your water intake and add fish oil to your diet to assist with the production of tears.
The good news is that dry eye syndrome is very treatable! With the help of your eye doctor and with a little trial and error it is very likely that you will find a solution that works well for you and relieves your dry eye symptoms.