Dealing with scratchy and uncomfortable dry eyes?
Dry eye is no fun, but you’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from dry eyes each year, and we’re sure you have a lot of questions. What causes it? Do you need to see a doctor? What are the best ways to treat dry eyes?
Here’s everything you need to know.
Your eyes at a glance
Most people don’t think about their eyes unless they have a reason to – usually when they notice discomfort. But the eye is one of the most complex and hardest working organs in the human body.
This inch-long sphere detects light and converts it into electrical impulses, which are then sent to the brain so it can interpret what you’re looking at. Think of it like a visual game of telephone or the process of taking a photo.
The front of your eye (comprised of the iris, cornea, lens and pupil) filters in light and focuses an image onto the membrane at the back of the eye, called the retina. This membrane sends electrical signals to the optic nerve, which then funnels them to the brain so you can understand what you’re seeing.
Because it’s made of several different layers, your eye needs to stay lubricated to function at full capacity.
What is dry eye?
Dry eye (also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca) is a condition that occurs when your eyes don’t get enough moisture. Without proper lubrication, they can feel itchy and painful, often accompanied by a burning sensation or vision issues. Dry eye can be triggered by several factors (more on that later), but it’s typically the result of decreased tear production or increased tear evaporation. This means that your eyes aren’t making enough tears or that your overall tear quality isn’t up to speed.
What are tears?
Tears are a nourishing liquid made of water, oil, proteins and mucus that help your eyes function. Tears are produced by the glands above your eyes, lubricating the eyes’ surface, nourishing the tissue and eliminating possible irritants, which also decreases the risk of infection.
Symptoms of dry eye
If you think you might be experiencing dry eyes, some of these symptoms may sound familiar to you:
- A scratchy, stinging sensation in your eyes
- Eye redness
- Clear mucus
- Increased light sensitivity
- Difficulty driving at night
- Blurred or impaired vision
- Watery eyes
Wait, did that say watery eyes? Yes, watery eyes are a side effect of dry eye that many don’t expect. It may seem strange, but sometimes the body’s response to eye irritation is going into overdrive with tear production. However, in many cases these tears are about quantity over quality.
What causes dry eye?
Typically, dry eye issues come down to functionality – maybe your glands aren’t making enough tears, or the kind of tears being produced aren’t adequately lubricating your eye.
Factors that can contribute to dry eye include:
- Environmental conditions, like dry air, heat and smoke
- Pre-existing health issues, such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders
- Medications, like some that treat acne, depression or blood pressure
- Tear duct infection or inflammation
- Too much screen time, which can cause infrequent blinking
- Laser eye surgery and other procedures
Although anyone can develop dry eye, people over 65 are more likely to experience it as part of the aging process. Research also suggests that women are more susceptible due to hormonal changes. Those who frequently wear contacts, and who have worn them long-term, are also more likely to experience dry eye.
Can dry eyes cause blurry vision?
Yes, dry eye can cause blurry vision. It’s a relatively common symptom and is often accompanied by some of the others listed above. However, sometimes blurry vision can be an indicator of something more serious. If your blurry vision lasts throughout the day or you experience other symptoms like floating spots, dizziness or double vision, contact your doctor.
Is chronic dry eye dangerous?
In some cases, it can be. Tears protect your eyes from bacterial buildup, and without that protective layer of tears, you increase your risk of infection. Excessive tear evaporation and dryness can also lead to scratching or scarring on the corneal surface, as well as the possibility of developing an eye ulcer.
Does that mean dry eye can cause blindness? It may be possible, but it’s not likely. While there are many ways this condition can affect your vision, it’s incredibly rare for dry eye to cause total blindness.
Treatment for dry eyes
Depending on your symptoms, dry eye can be helped with over-the-counter medicines, home remedies or treatment by a doctor.
Eye drops and artificial tears
When looking at eye drops, you’ll find that you can purchase a range of over-the-counter options. The two biggest categories are standard eye drops and preservative-free. Standard eye drops utilize preservatives to fight bacteria, but if you find those are irritating your eyes further, preservative-free eye drops may be a good choice – especially if you use them frequently.
Protect your eyes from dry conditions
For many people, dry eye comes down to exposure. Is the air-conditioning in your home making the air too dry? Are you consistently exposed to heat or smoke? If you can, remove yourself from those situations as soon as possible. You could also invest in a small humidifier to return moisture to the air in your home or wear sunglasses when out and about on windy days.
Take a breather from screens
We know – screen time is a necessity these days. But too much time spent staring at a computer or phone screen means less time blinking, which can really strain your eyes. If you must be plugged in for long periods, remember the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away. This should help your eyes relax.
Explore treatment options with your doctor
Not only can your doctor offer you a thorough exam to explore what may be causing your dry eyes, they can also recommend a host of different treatment options depending on your needs. This includes anti-inflammatory medications, inserts, medicated eye drops, customized lenses, and more hands-on procedures that can help with eyelid, gland and tear duct issues.
When should you call your doctor?
Managing dry eye isn’t always simple, and sometimes you need a little help. If you’ve tried a few at-home solutions and things don’t seem to be improving, it might be time to visit your doctor – especially if you’re experiencing more intense symptoms, like increased amounts of yellow mucus, excessive drainage, prolonged dizziness or other issues.