Red, Itchy, Burning Eyes? You Might Have Dry Eye Syndrome
There is an eye disease that effects millions of Americans every year, though many don’t realize it. It’s name might seem inocuous, but Dry Eye Syndrome is very real and impacts people’s lives every day. Simply put, Dry Eye Syndrome is chronic lack of tears, or poor quality tears, and can be anything from an annoyance to a significant medical issue.
Causes Of Dry Eye Syndrome
Environment: Chronic dry eye can be caused by several environmental factors. The first is dry air, either caused by your local climate or over-use of air conditioning. Dry conditions cause tears to evaporate faster than normal, leading to dry eyes. Exposure to bright sun or windy conditions will cause your tears to evaporate like puddles. Finally over-exposure to smoke will also cause your eyes to dry out.
Decreased Blinking: Tears are spread over your eyes when you blink, so it logically follows that blinking less will lead to dryer eyes. Under normal circumstances, a healthy adult blinks roughly 15 to 20 times a minute. However when performing activities such as watching TV or using a computer, tablet, or smart phone, a healthy adult will only blink a third as often.
Diet: Tears are made of three parts: Oil, water, and mucous. A diet lacking in essential fatty acids can lead to poor quality, or not enough tears.
Age: As we age, our bodies function less and less efficiently. One of the results of that is that the glands that produce tears don’t function as well as they used to, leading to a lower quality or quantity of tears.
Medications: Certain medications can interfere with your body’s natural tear production. Even over the counter antihistamines can cause Dry Eye Syndrome.
Surgery: Some eye surgeries, such as LASIK can interfere with your body’s ability to naturally prodcue tears.
Symptoms Of Dry Eye Syndrome
Dry Eye Syndrome might be fairly self-explanitory, but it’s good to know the symptoms to avoid confusion with another illness, injury, or problem.
Red Eyes – The chronic dryness associated with Dry Eye Syndrome will often result in your eyes being inflamed and red. This could also be a symptom of eye allergies or conjunctivitis.
Itchy Eyes – If you have Dry Eye Syndrome, the first symptome you will likely notice is that your eyes will often, almost constantly, feel itchy. However it is important that you don’t scratch your eyes, doing so will only increase the iritation
Irritated Eyes – Dry Eye Syndrome can also make your eyes feel irritated, with a stinging or burning sensation.
“Gritty” Feeling Eyes – Dry Eye Syndrome can sometimes make your eyes feel “gritty” or as though you have something in your eye.
Excess Tearing – It might seem counter-intuitive, but Dry Eye Syndrome could cause your eyes to tear excessively. This happens because the irritation associated with Dry Eye Syndrome causes your body to over-produce tears as a self-defense mechanism. However, the dryness will come back once the period of excessive tearing passes.
Inability To Cry – If you are suffering from dry eye syndrome because your body doesn’t naturally produce enough tears, you might find yourself unable to cry, even if you are sad or distressed.
Diagnosing Dry Eye Syndrome
If you find yourself with any or all of the above symptoms, it is likely a good idea to schedule an appointment for an eye exam. There are several ways that your optometrist diagnose Dry Eye Syndrome. First, the Optometrist will take a patient’s history to find out if family history, medication, surgery, dietary, or their environment could be a contributing factor. Next comes an examination of the eyelids and the surface of the eye. This is done to see if there are any problems with the eyelid that could be interferring with tear production or spreading tears over the eye. Finally the tears themselves might be collected and examined to determine the amount and quality of the tears.
Treating Dry Eye Syndrome
There are a number of treatments for chronically dry eyes, ranging from simple behavior changes to surgery.
If your examination determined that your environment is the largest contributing factor to your dry eye syndome, then there are a number of easy steps that could be taken to alleviate your symptoms. If you spend a lot of time in air conditioning, consider using it only if you absolutely need it.If you can’t turn down the air conditioner, consider using a humidifier. If you spend the majority of your time outside in sunny, windy environments, consider switching to close-fitting wrap-around style sunglasses. The larger, close-fitting lenses will help to keep the sun and wind out of your eyes and from evaporating your tears.
If you work on a computer, or otherwise use a digital screen for long periods of time, that could be the source of your dry eye syndrome. We tend to blink much less when looking at a digital screen, so trying to make a conscious effort to blink more often will help soothe your dry eyes. You should also make a habit of practicing the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen at something at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. This will give your eyes a chance to rest and you will blink more normally. You can also ask your optometrist about computer glasses to help protect against eye strain.
If your tears are of low quality and lacking in oil, you may want to consider adding an Omega 3 fish oil supplement to your daily routine. The Omega 3 fatty acids have a wide range of health benefits, from your joints to your heart, to your brain, and they also help to make high-quality tears. Another option is to include – or increase – servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, in your diet. Cold-water fatty fish are not only high in protein, but also high in Omega 3 fatty acids.
The next easiest step in treatment of chronically dry eyes is likely the adding of eye drops or artificial tears. There are several over the counter options that can help to releave your symptoms and soothe your eyes, and your optometrist will suggest the best options for you. There are also perscription strength eye drops that can releave inflamation, help heal damage to the cornea, and moisturize your eyes.
Part of the structure of your eye is a drain for your tears called the “lacrimal ducts”. An exam to diagnose dry eye syndrome could show that your drainage ducts are too big, allowing tears to drain away too quickly. One possible treatment for this is the insertion of a small plug into the bottom duct. A plug can be taken out at any time, but they serve to slow down how quickly your tears drain. There is also a surgical option to cauterize the ducts.
For most, Dry Eye Syndrome is something of a nuisence. Your eyes get red and itchy, perhaps they sting or you feel as though there is something in your eye that you just can’t get out. In that case, some simple behavioral changes and maybe adding the recommended over the counter eye drops will help. But for some chronically dry eyes can be a major iritant that could lead to more significant health issues, or be a symptom of a larger issue. That is why it is always a good eye idea to come in for a regular eye exam and to schedule an appointment if you have any questions or concerns about your dry eyes.
You’ll be happier and more comfortable and your eyes will thank you for it.
Bailey, Gretchen (updated July, 2015) Dry Eye Syndrome. Retrieved July, 15, 2015
American Omptometric Association (c2014) Dry Eye. Retrieved July 15, 2015