Dry eye syndrome or keratoconjunctivitis is a common condition. Although it can be uncomfortable to endure, dry eye is also very treatable. In simple terms, dry eye develops due to a lack of lubrication on the front surface of the eyes, either because the body cannot make enough tears, or makes poor quality ones. If the eyes lack sufficient lubrication, they can become swollen, red, and irritated.
How Common is Dry Eye?
Dry eye syndrome is one of the major reasons people visit their optometrist. According to a 2012 poll, more than 26 million Americans over the age of 18 experience symptoms of the condition. Additionally, an estimated five million people over the age of 50 experience dry eye-related issues. Experts believe these numbers will increase as people spend more of their time in front of screens.
What Causes Dry Eye?
Dry eye syndrome occurs when the tear production process is disrupted. This can happen for myriad reasons including hormone changes and side effects of medication. The former plays a large role in dry eye, especially in women, because hormones and the nervous system are intrinsically involved in tear production. Age is another common cause, as everyone produces fewer tears as they age. Additionally, environmental factors such as weather exposure, reading, and computer use can cause dry eye.
What Are the Symptoms?
Dry eye syndrome tends to affect both eyes at the same time. Symptoms can range from grittiness in the eyes to blurred vision and, ironically, watery eyes. Other symptoms include stinging or burning sensations, redness, tired eyes, or sensitivity to light. One of the most irritating symptoms is the feeling that something is consistently in the eye.
Am I At Risk of Dry Eye?
Women are more likely to experience dry eye syndrome than men. Additionally, individuals over the age of 50 are far more likely to experience it than younger people. Some experts believe another often-overlooked risk factor is diet. Consuming too few foods rich in vitamin A and omega-3s can have negative effects on the eyes. Wearing soft contact lenses might also cause issues, as does having a job that requires a lot of computer usage.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Dry eye isn’t a serious condition, so immediate medical care is generally not required. However, if the symptoms are prolonged, persistent, or affecting the quality of life, an optometrist may be able to provide solutions. The doctor will examine the eyes and rule out underlying conditions. More serious cases may require referral to a specialist.
Can I Prevent Dry Eye Syndrome?
It may be possible to curb the symptoms of dry eye by identifying when and under which circumstances they arise. Some of the main things you can do are logical, though not many consider these outside factors. One of the best ways to prevent dry eye is to take breaks if you are using your smartphone or computer, and experts advise avoiding blowing air, such as walking into the wind. Protective eyewear such as sunglasses might also help to curb the symptoms by blocking wind, particles, and sunlight.
What Are the Treatments for Dry Eye?
Almost all the treatments for dry eye consist of drops, gels, and ointments. Most eye drops or artificial tears are available from the pharmacy without a prescription. Alternatively, if the condition is severe, an eye doctor might prescribe anti-inflammatory treatments. Surgery is a more extreme option generally reserved for treating underlying conditions.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Dry Eye Syndrome?
For most cases of dry eye syndrome, the eye doctor will only need to carry out a comprehensive eye exam. Alternative tests include the Schirmer test: the doctor places blotting strips under the eyelids for a few minutes to determine tear production. Tests using special dyes can also assess tear quality.
Is Dry Eye Serious?
In most cases, dry eye syndrome is not serious. Symptoms can generally be managed with drops or similar treatments. In more severe cases, dry eye can affect vision and, therefore, quality of life. Sensitivity to light and pain can interrupt day-to-day activities. Additionally, these more severe cases can sometimes lead to complications such as a perforated cornea.
Can Dry Eye Be Cured?
Dry eye is a progressive and chronic condition that cannot be cured. That said, in most cases, symptoms can be successfully managed, resulting in increased eye comfort and fewer symptoms.