Do your eyes frequently feel dry and irritated? Do you find yourself blinking aggressively to try and produce more tears?
If so, you may be one of millions of people with dry eye disease, one of the most common, yet underdiagnosed, eye conditions in the world.
One survey found that 48% of U.S. adults regularly experience symptoms of dry eye. Nearly 5 million Americans over 50, or about 3.2 million women and 1.68 million men, are affected.
In addition to its impact on quality of life for patients, dry eye costs about $3.84 billion annually to the U.S. healthcare system, and $55.4 billion annually in lost productivity and absenteeism from work.
So what is dry eye, who is at risk, and how can you find relief if you’re one of the millions of folks who suffer from this disease? Let’s take a look.
Why Should You Be Happy About Your Tears?
To understand dry eye we must understand our tears. Most people associate tears with crying in response to emotional situations.
But did you know that a persistent tear film is actually necessary for healthy eyes? Tears protect your eyes from damage caused by debris and pathogens.
A normal, healthy tear film is made up of three layers:
- An outer lipid layer that consists of oil. This layer is produced by the meibomian glands at the rim of your eyelids and prevents your tears from evaporating too quickly.
- A middle aqueous layer, which is what most of us think of as tears. This water-based layer is produced by the lacrimal glands, which are located just above the outer rim of each eye.
- A mucin layer, which keeps the tears spread evenly over the surface of the eye, is produced by cells on the surface of your eye.
As new tears are produced, old tears drain out of the eye through the tear ducts and into the nasal passages. That’s why you get a runny nose when you cry.
What Type of Dry Eye Do You Have?
Dry eye occurs when your eyes fail to produce enough tears, or when tears evaporate too quickly. There are two primary types of dry eye:
- Aqueous dry eye occurs when your lacrimal glands don’t produce enough tears.
- Evaporative dry eye, which is the most common form of the disease, occurs when tears evaporate too quickly, leaving only the mucus layer and causing irritation.
It has been estimated that about 86% of patients have evaporative dry eye. Out of those individuals, most have what is called meibomian gland dysfunction or MGD, which is when the meibomian glands fail to produce enough lipids for the outer tear film layer.
What Causes Dry Eye?
There are several factors that increase your risk of getting dry eye.
- Age. Tear production naturally declines as we get older. In fact, a majority of people over 65 have at least some dry eye symptoms.
- Gender. Women are more likely to get dry eye than men. Hormonal influences caused by menopause, pregnancy, and some oral contraceptives can lead to dry eye symptoms. Research has shown that women taking estrogen-only HRT are 70% more likely to experience dry eye, while those taking a combination of estrogen and progesterone have a 30% greater risk.
- Medical conditions. People with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid problems are more likely to get dry eye.
- Medications. Some medications used to treat high blood pressure can cause dry eye as a side effect. People taking antihistamines, sleeping pills, anxiety medications, and some pain relievers may also be at greater risk.
- Environmental pollutants. Exposure to smoke or wind, or living in a dry climate, can cause or aggravate dry eye symptoms. In addition, long-term computer use often results in lower blink rates, which can lead to low tear production or increased evaporation.
What Are the Symptoms of Dry Eye?
Dry eye disease can lead to a number of uncomfortable symptoms:
- Stinging or burning eyes
- Sandy or gritty feeling
- Occasional excessive tearing to compensate for dryness
- Discharge from eyes
- Pain and redness in or around eyes
- Blurred vision
- Heavy eyelids
- Decreased tolerance for reading, working on the computer, or sustained visual attention
- Eye fatigue
Dry eye has a significant impact on daily functioning and quality of life.
- It impairs successful use of contact lenses, work performance, driving ability, and enjoyment of outdoor activities.
- It affects the success of other vision care procedures including cataracts surgery and laser vision correction.
- Researchers from the University of Miami have found that individuals with dry eye were more likely to report symptoms of chronic pain and depression.
Lid disease that causes dry eye can start off with some annoying dryness and escalate all the way to major structural damage. That’s why diagnosis and treatment are so important.
What Is the Treatment for Dry Eye?
We have a host of treatment options available, but the first step is to make an appointment to see what type of dry eye you have and to see what stage the disease is in.
The biggest thing is that every person is made differently so treatment plans are tailored to the needs of the individual patient:
- Over-the-counter eye drops or artificial tears
- Prescription medication for dry eyes — oral or drops
- Warm compresses
- Nutraceuticals that promote a healthy tear film
- Punctal plugs to block tear duct drainage
- Demodex treatments
If you think you may have dry eye or have questions about the right treatment for you, contact Dr. Katie today to schedule an appointment.
With the correct diagnosis and treatment, you can get relief from your dry eye symptoms!