Most people only associate tears with sadness or crying but do not realize that tears are constantly in our eyes, even when happy, and play a crucial role in eye health. Tears, a mix of water, mucus, oils, and antibodies, provide moisture as well as lubrication in order to ensure comfortable, healthy vision. When insufficient tears are produced or if tears are of low quality, dry eyes can occur as a result.
This relatively common condition can be easily recognized by a number of symptoms. Typical indicators include:
- An uncomfortable itching or burning sensation
- Dryness and irritation
- Sensitivity to light
- Sensation of something being stuck in the eye
- Slightly blurry vision
A variety of factors and situations can lead to dry, sensitive eyes. It is important to be aware of these issues as some of them are preventable. The following risk factors increase the likelihood of experiencing dryness:
- Certain medical conditions such as thyroid issues, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic conjunctivitis and diabetes
- Increased age, specifically, people over 50
- Certain medications, such as antihistamines and antidepressants, can result in decreased tear production as a side effect
- Gender – Women are more likely to experience this condition due to hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, contraceptives, and menopause
- Environmental factors such as wind, smoke, and dry climates
- Staring at a computer screen or a book for too long
- Long term use of contact lenses
- Not consuming enough Vitamin A
- Certain eye surgeries such as Lasik
If symptoms are present, a visit to an ophthalmologist can confirm the condition. The ophthalmologist will perform an eye examination in order to determine the suspected cause and best route of treatment.
If left untreated, the condition can possibly lead to a range of complications. These complications include:
- Eye infections
- Eye damage
- Difficulty performing every day activities such as computer work or reading due to discomfort
Since the condition can be due to a number of causes, a variety of treatments need to be considered. An ophthalmologist can help determine appropriate options for healing and calming dry, irritated eyes. Some of the treatment options to consider include:
1. Artificial Tears
For more mild cases caused by eye strain due to reading or staring at a computer screen, artificial tears can provide an easy, effective option. Artificial tears are available in a variety of thicknesses and without a prescription. It is recommended to use brands that are free from preservatives as these additives can further irritate the eyes.
2. Prescription Eye Drops
If over the counter eye drops do not provide relief, prescription eye drops may be required. An assortment of prescription drops is available. An ophthalmologist will assist in determining appropriate formulas. These brands include:
- Restasis – These drops lubricate the eye and also contain a specific agent to encourage tear production. Required treatment time is 90 days and burning eyes are possible during the first few weeks of use.
- Xiidra – These drops, a safe and effective new treatment option, aim to reduce inflammation and, in studies, resulted in a reduction in dryness in as little as two weeks in some cases.
3. Steroid Drops
Steroid drops are often used in addition to prescription drops. These drops are generally used on a short-term basis to assist in reducing inflammation.
4. Lubricating Agents
Another treatment to consider is a lubricant such as Lacrisert, a sterile, solid insert placed beneath the eye. The device helps relieve the discomforts, such as itching, burning, and dryness, typically associated with the condition.
5. Punctal Plugs
Another possibility for treating dry eye symptoms is the insertion of a punctal plug. A punctal plug is a small, sterile device placed in the tear ducts by a doctor. By blocking the tear ducts, tears are no longer able to drain through their normal route. This method conserves tears and leads to increased moisture and lubrication in the eyes thereby reducing symptoms.
6. Intense Pulsed Light
Intense Pulsed Light, also known as IPL, has been linked to an improvement in dry eye symptoms. It is thought to produce results by reducing inflammation.
7. Meibomian Gland Expression
The majority of dry eye cases are related to the meibomian glands, tiny oil glands that line the eyes. At times, these glands become clogged and no longer produce a sufficient amount of oil to lubricate the eyes. Without adequate oil, tears evaporate more quickly and the eyes may become dry. To unclog the meibomian glands, a doctor uses a specific device to express the clogged contents.
Tips for Preventing Dry Eyes
A number of simple habits can be utilized at home and lead to improved eye health. These tips include:
- Make a point to blink on a regular basis and also take periodic breaks when reading or using the computer for long amounts of time – blinking helps maintain moisture by spreading tears around the surface of the eye
- If possible, increase the humidity in your home and work
- Wear sunglasses to protect eyes from the sun and wind
- Stay sufficiently hydrated by drinking at least 8 to 10 glasses of water each day
- Increase your intake of essential fatty acids either through nutritional changes or a doctor-approved supplement
- Avoid cigarette smoke
All in all, tears are a critical part of eye health. By avoiding certain risk factors and receiving prompt medical attention when symptoms are noticed, dry eyes can be successfully treated.