By Rebekah Montes, O.D., F.A.A.O.
We’ve all experienced dry eyes at some point in our lives. It’s that uncomfortable state when your eyes are burning, itching, and, somewhat ironically, watering uncontrollably. Approximately 40 million people experience dry eyes at any given time, and it’s the leading reason for visits to the eye doctor next to vision correction.
Having dry eyes isn’t just an irritating experience, however. When your eyes remain dry for an extended period of time, they become more susceptible to infection and inflammatory damage to the cornea.
What Causes Dry Eyes?
For many people, dry eye is a temporary, occasional occurrence caused by things such as windy weather, sitting in front of a computer for too long, or using a heater. But for others, it can be a common chronic condition called ocular surface disease. Their eyes don’t produce enough tears or the right quality of tears to prevent dryness.
Environment and location – Where you live can play a significant role in whether you experience dry eyes.
- Studies have shown that people living in large cities with high levels of air pollution are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with dry eye syndrome.
- It’s also been shown that people who live in higher-altitude areas, where the air is dryer, or particularly windy areas are more likely to develop dry eyes.
- A smoky environment can be a catalyst for dry eyes for those who smoke or live with someone who smokes.
Activities that reduce blinking – If you stare at a computer screen or phone for the majority of your day or read for long periods of time, these activities can reduce how often you blink, which can cause dry eyes because blinking stimulates tear production.
Aging – As we age, we tend to produce fewer tears because our hormones change. While this can happen to both men and women, dry eyes due to aging are more common in women, particularly those who have gone through menopause.
Vision correction – Wearing contact lenses or getting LASIK surgery can cause dry eyes.
- If you wear contact lenses for long periods of time, they can partially block oxygen from entering the cornea. Contact lenses also need liquid to stay soft and maintain their shape, so they tend to absorb your naturally occurring tears to achieve this.
- During LASIK surgery, some nerves in the cornea are cut, which can interfere with signals to the brain that the eyes need lubrication.
Other medical conditions – Certain diseases as well as other conditions of the eye can cause the eyes to dry out.
- Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and/or Sjögren’s syndrome – These autoimmune disorders, which often occur simultaneously, can cause dry eyes due to inflammation of the eye’s sclera, iris, or uvea.
- Thyroid disorders – Hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, Graves’ disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can cause eyes to dry out by affecting the muscles around the eyelids, preventing tear production, or by not producing enough oil to hold moisture on the surface of the eyes.
- Blepharitis – This common eye condition causes the eyelids to get red, swollen, irritated, itchy, and sometimes crusty. This can result in oil and flakes building up in the thin layer of tears across the surface of the eye, making the eyes feel dry.
- Entropion and ectropion – These conditions cause the lower eyelid to sag outward (ectropion) or the eyelid to flip inward (entropion). Both cause the eyes to excessively tear up, which can lead to dry eyes.
Certain medications – Diuretics, beta-blockers, antihistamines, sleeping aids, anxiety medications and antidepressants, and heartburn medications can all contribute to dry eyes typically because they in some way block signals between nerve cells. This can cause the brain to not be aware that the eyes need lubrication.
Preventing and Treating Dry Eyes
Whatever the reason for your dry eyes, there are ways to decrease discomfort and get some relief.
Protect yourself within your environment -
- If you live in an area with high air pollution or dry air, use a high-quality air filter or humidifier in your home.
- Wear wraparound sunglasses to help protect your eyes in windy areas.
- Fans, heaters, and hair dryers can dry out the eyes, so limit their usage or make sure your eyes are not directly exposed to them.
- Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke. If you smoke, this is another good reason to try to quit. If you live with someone who smokes, request that they do so outside.
Keep blinking – If you regularly engage in activities that prevent you from blinking, such as working at a computer, reading, or watching TV, make a conscious decision to blink more often. Take a break from what you’re doing every 10 minutes or so to give your eyes a rest. Sometimes using reading glasses or glasses with progressive lenses can better protect your eyes during these activities, also.
Use artificial tears – There are over-the-counter eye drops specifically designed to lubricate and soothe dry eyes. If you find they’re not helping, however, ask your doctor about prescription drops or lubricating gels.
Use Omega-3 fatty acid supplements – Some people have found that taking an Omega-3 fatty acid supplement, such as fish oil, helps alleviate dry eyes because of its anti-inflammatory properties. However, recent research found that Omega-3 supplements may not be entirely helpful for dry eye. Ask your eye care provider if they think it may be a good choice for you.
Give your eyes some TLC – Applying warm compresses to your eyes can help release the oil in your tear glands, which can increase tear production. Washing your eyelids with a washcloth and warm water can also help.
Talk to your doctor about medical treatment – If you have chronic dry eye, your doctor may recommend medical intervention. This can include prescription eyedrops that help you make your own tears, punctal plugs, which are tiny devices placed in your tear ducts to help your eyes produce natural tears, and other methods.
If you are struggling with frequent or chronic dry eyes, the eye care specialists at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic can determine the best course of treatment to manage your symptoms. Call 713-442-0427 to make an appointment.