Most of us have probably experienced the sensation of dry eyes at some point. Feeling scratchy, gritty or sandy in your eyes can be dry eyes. It can be temporarily due to lack of sleep, a dry climate, and many other environmental factors. But in some people, dry eyes can be a constant problem, and one that requires treatment to bring relief.
Your eyes need tears to stay clean and healthy. Tears are made by glands behind your upper eyelid. Every time you blink, the tears are pushed across your eye. This keeps your eyes moist. They flow into tiny openings, called tear ducts. They are in the inner corners of your eyelids, where they drain away.
With dry eyes, either your tear glands don’t make enough tears or your tears evaporate too fast. However, some people with dry eyes have both issues. Because of this, your eyes can feel dry and irritated. Dry eye is a common, particularly in older adults according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).
As a matter of fact, nearly five million Americans ages 50 and older have dry eye, according to statistics reported by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Interestingly, the condition affects more women than men.
What causes dry eyes?
Dry eye can be short term or long term. It can develop from a wide range of causes, such as:
- Environmental irritants, such as wind, air conditioning, sun exposure, smoke, chemical fumes, or heat
- Hormonal changes in women, such as from pregnancy, menopause, or birth control pills
- Skin diseases in or around the eyes, or diseases of the eye glands
- Eye surgery, such as refractive surgery and cataract surgery
- Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic inflammation of the eye
- Infrequent blinking such as when staring at a computer screen for long periods of time.
- Inability to close the eyelids completely during sleep
- Various medicines, such as antihistamines, nasal decongestants, blood pressure medication and antidepressants.
- Excessive or insufficient vitamin intake.
- Long-term contact lens wear.
What are the symptoms dry eyes?
People with dry eyes often feel like something is in their eye. This is called foreign body sensation. The eye may feel scratchy, gritty, or sandy. Other common symptoms of dry eyes include:
- Blurry vision
- Burning sensation
- Itchy eyes
- Sore eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Stinging, burning, or itchiness
- Pain or redness
- Inability to cry
- Eye fatigue
- Periods of watery eyes followed by dry eyes
- Heavy eyelids
How are dry eyes diagnosed?
Your doctor/optometrist usually diagnoses dry eyes based on your symptoms, an examination, and possibly a few simple tests. Your doctor may perform a slit lamp exam. This is to look at different parts of your eye.
Your doctor may also measure the quantity and quality of tears for any abnormalities. Special dyes may be put in the eyes to better observe tear flow. This will also highlight any changes to the outer surface of the eye that occurs due to insufficient tears.
How is it treated?
There are so many different causes of dry eyes. Therefore, your treatment will depend on your symptoms and cause. Most treatments involve either replacing tears, or reducing tear drainage.
To help soothe your dry eyes, you can try artificial-tear eye drops or lubricants that you can buy over the counter. They help to keep the eye moist and relieve your symptoms. But they do not cure the condition. Lubricants can also help to keep your tears from evaporating off the eye.
- You can also try to blink a lot, especially if you spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen.
- Limit your time in air-conditioned or heated rooms. Try a humidifier in rooms where you spend a lot of time.
- Wearing sunglasses can help protect your eyes from wind and sun.
- Avoid cigarette smoke exposure.
- Take proper care of contact lenses, or switch to daily, disposable contact lenses.
- Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water per day to prevent dehydration
- Taking an omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplement may also help.
Treatments that your eye doctor may want to try include:
- Prescription ointments or eye drops, such as cyclosporine. You will need to use this medicine every day for a long time. They help reduce inflammation and your symptoms.
- Tear duct plugs. The doctor puts tiny plugs in the openings of your tear ducts. This helps keep your tears from draining out. The plugs can fall out and need to be put in again.
- Antibiotic eye drops can also reduce eyelid inflammation. This helps with the secretion of oil into your tears.