Dry eye disease sounds like a minor issue, right? Use over-the-counter drops, and you’re done. Yet the solution may not be so simple, because the tears that lubricate your eyes each time you blink aren’t simple. If your body can’t make enough or can’t keep them on the surface of your eyes, you’ll have a problem. Ultimately, it may affect your vision. Find more information on Horizon Eye Care’s Dry Eye Center page.
Calling this condition a “disease” rather than a “syndrome,” as doctors once did, represents a breakthrough. A syndrome may just be a nuisance, but diseases can be diagnosed and treated. Doctors now know many factors affect dry eyes, from a deficiency of tears to eyelash mites to a blockage of lipid glands along the eyelids.
To understand tear problems, you have to understand tears. Healthy ones contain oily lipids, a watery component, and mucin. Lipids keep tears from evaporating too quickly; water washes the eyes; mucin helps anchor and spread tears across their surfaces. (If your body doesn’t make enough mucin, water can bead up on eyes like raindrops on a windshield.)
A recent study says one in 11 Americans reports symptoms consistent with dry eye disease. Three types of people are likeliest to encounter this problem: Smokers, women and anyone over 50. Longtime contact lens wearers may suffer, though some wear contacts comfortably into old age.
Luckily, diagnosis is a simple process. Your doctor will judge a case as mild, medium or severe, according to an examination (often by staining eyes with a painless dye to study the flow of fluid) and a questionnaire that shows what conditions make your eyes dry: weather, times of day, etc.
Treatment may be easy, too, and inexpensive. Over-the-counter drops, moisture pads and home humidifiers relieve mild sufferers. You can change your diet, adding Omega-3 compounds such as fish oil or flax oil, or your behavior: Also, staring for hours at a computer screen, especially if you rarely blink, doesn’t help.
Doctors can unblock glands to stimulate lipid flow. Tears that run off too quickly can be retained with punctal plugs, sterile devices at the corners of the eyes that keep tears from vanishing into the nose and down the throat. (They then evaporate from the surface of the eyes.) Medication can suppress inflammation, which can dry eyes out. Paradoxically, bone-dry eyes may benefit from hard contact lenses that press a liquid layer against the corneas. Glasses with moisture chambers that seal off the eyes may bring relief.
A special note: if you’re contemplating corrective LASIK surgery or cataract surgery, ask your doctor beforehand about dry eye disease. Because if you don’t address it, surgery may not yield the results you want.