Dry Eye Syndrome, and why it’s worth looking into

February 10, 2012

Applying eye drops to treat dry eyes

In the winter, eye doctors see much more Dry Eye Syndrome. Cold, dry outdoor air and dry indoor heat can cause eye pain and blurred vision. Here's some useful information about Dry Eye, and some things you can do about it.

What it is?

American Optometric Association provides some overview information on dry eye.

The association says that dry eye is a condition in which there are insufficient tears to lubricate and nourish the eye. Tears are necessary for maintaining the health of the front surface of the eye and for providing clear vision.

People with dry eyes either do not produce enough tears or have a poor quality of tears. Dry eye is a common and often chronic problem, particularly in older adults.

In other words, dry eye is pretty much like the name describes. And not enough, or poor-quality tears, are the reason.

Tears: there's more to them than meets the eye

Tears are more than water. In fact, they have three layers: oil, water, and mucus. Each layer protects and nourishes the cornea (the front surface of the eye). A smooth oil layer helps keep the water layer wet; the mucus layer helps spread the tears evenly over the cornea.

Each time you blink, glands in and around the eyelids create tears. From there, they spread across your corneas. And these tears are beautiful things. They help wash away grit, pollen, and other material that shouldn't be in your eyes. They also keep your eye membranes moist, smooth, and clear.

The most common cause of dry eye syndrome is not having enough water in your tears. But any imbalance in the three ingredients of tears can make them evaporate too fast, or spread unevenly over the cornea. Then dry eye symptoms can develop.

Dry Eye Syndrome is also called keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS).

Causes of dry eyes

Common causes of dry eye syndrome are:

  • Age
  • Medicines you're taking
  • Contact lenses
  • Eye surgery
  • Medical conditions like diabetes and thyroid trouble
  • Other eye problems

All these can lead to dry eyes. Gender is a factor, too. Women are more likely to have dry eyes. Pregnancy, birth control, or hormonal changes of menopause are the main reasons for this.

There are also environmental causes. In this case, winter. Wind, smoke, and dry climates can all cause dry eyes. And in the winter, what do we have? All those things. We escape the cold wind by going into houses that are extra-dry from the heat being turned on. We enjoy those nice fires—those nice fires that, unfortunately, produce eye-irritating wood smoke.

Dry eye symptoms

Some common symptoms of dry eye syndrome are:

  • Irritated, gritty, scratchy, or burning eyes
  • Feeling like something's in your eyes
  • Excessive watering
  • Blurred vision

If you're feeling these on a regular basis, it's important to find out if you might have dry eyes. In some cases, dry eyes can damage the corneas and impair vision. A trip to your eye doctor is the best place to start.

Things that can help

Your eye doctor has different treatments for dry eyes that work to restore or maintain the normal amount of tears in the eye. These treatments can minimize dryness, its related discomfort, and help maintain eye health.

Other things you can do, and should do, even if you are getting treatment:

  • Don't forget to blink when you're reading, watching television, or at the computer for long periods of time. An article from the Pennsylvania Optometric Association and American Optometric Association suggests a "20/20 Rule." For every 20 minutes you're sitting at the computer, take a 20-second break, even if it's just closing your eyes for at least 20 seconds. (You can tell your boss we told you to.)
  • Keep your computer screen level or slightly below eye-level. Looking up at a screen makes your eyes dry out faster.
  • Drink plenty of water. Eight to 10 glasses a day will keep you well hydrated.
  • Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses outside in the sun and wind. The more of your eye the sunglasses cover, the better. Wraparound frames work well.
  • Try raising the air's humidity level at home and/or work. A room humidifier is an inexpensive way to be much more comfortable.
  • Keep your eyes closed if you're drying your hair with a blow dryer.
  • Talk to your optometrist (eye doctor) about nutritional supplements. Supplements with essential fatty acids have been shown to help some cases of dry eyes.
  • Stay out of smoke-filled rooms.
  • "Artificial tears" can be useful. Follow the package directions.
  • Try not to rub dry, itchy or burning eyes. It only makes things worse. Try closing your eyes for a few minutes instead.

Dry eye may be caused by rheumatologic/connective tissue diseases. Sjogren's syndrome is a key cause and if you have dry eye that is significant or continues to worsen despite over-the-counter treatment, you should see your doctor for further evaluation.

And of course, if your dry eyes get worse, see your eye doctor. Your eyes are worth it.

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