For some people, their eyes are something they pay little attention to, as long as they are functioning properly. For others, their eyes are often a source of irritation and constant awareness. If you belong to the latter group and experience eye discomfort, dryness, grittiness, stinging or burning, you may have dry eye. Dry eye is a common condition that occurs when the tear film is unable to properly protect and hydrate the eyes. This leads to breaks in the tear film, exposing the eye to open air and any irritants that may be present. When this happens, your eyes can feel dry and uncomfortable. Studies have estimated that roughly 5 million people in the United States suffer from moderate-to-severe dry eye, with millions more exhibiting less severe symptoms.

Know the facts: Why are your eyes dry?

Your tears are composed of a mixture of water, oils and mucin. Dry eye is caused by a deficiency in the tears that your eyes are producing.  Normally your tears help protect your eyes and keep them comfortable and healthy. People with dry eye usually do not produce enough tears or have an imbalance in the components of their tears which can cause them to evaporate too quickly, leaving the eye exposed.

Living with Dry Eye

Dry eye is often exacerbated by a number of lifestyle components and environmental factors. Autoimmune conditions, aging, menopause, smoking, contact lens wear, ocular surgery, and systemic medications can all contribute to decreased tear production. Airplanes can also be problematic for dry-eye patients due to the dry air and lack of humidity. Extended visual tasking, which is a prolonged amount of staring or focusing, such as watching television, driving at night or using the computer, increases the likelihood of tear evaporation because you blink less often.

Climate and Geographic Location

For patients living in the northern part of the United States, dry eye can be especially challenging during the winter months. Time spent outside exposes dry eye sufferers to problematic weather, such as cold, brisk air and strong winter winds. Being indoors can also pose problems with stressors like hot air vents, fireplaces, and wood stoves. Patients living in the Midwest, Southwest and other arid environments are also prone to dry-eye symptoms because of the reduced moisture in the air.

Throughout the day, it is important to determine if your environment is adding to your discomfort. Simple steps such as not allowing air from a fan, heater, or air conditioner to blow directly in your face, using a humidifier to moisten the air in your home or office, and wearing glasses in windy conditions can all help to reduce dry eye discomfort.

Medications

Some medications can dry out certain tissues in your body and have side effects that include dehydration, dry mouth, or dry eyes. Medications prescribed for things like allergies, depression, colds, arthritis, or birth control fall into this category. Not all medications affect everyone the same, so it is important to speak with your doctor about the side effects of any medications you may be using.

Relieving Dry Eye

Discomfort and dryness are often the main symptoms experienced by dry eye patients. Your ophthalmologist can suggest treatments that may help these symptoms. For both comfort and health reasons, it is important that you treat your dry eye properly, and always speak with your doctor if you have any concerns.

Over the counter products

Many artificial tear products are available over-the-counter and can be a good first line therapy to reduce drying in your eyes and give you more comfort. The key is to use these drops before your eyes begin to feel uncomfortable, or before entering a place where you know you may have dry eye symptoms. In addition to eye drops, some eye ointments are available. Eye ointments can be challenging to use during the day because of their thickness, but are often used at night to help reduce more severe dry eye symptoms. It can be confusing to determine which artificial tear to choose because of the large number that is available.  We always recommend that you speak with your eye doctor about what brand or formulation of drops would be most beneficial as part of your treatment regimen.

Prescription eyedrops

Inflammation in the eyes often causes the redness and burning associated with dry eye. There has been extensive research over the years to develop prescription eyedrops to improve the quality of life for people with dry eye and currently there are two prescription eyedrops available in the United States. Your doctor may recommend the use of one of these drops if your symptoms are severe enough.

Dry eye devices

There are some ways to treat dry eye that do not involve eyedrops. Punctal plugs, which are small devices that are inserted into the tear ducts in the corners of the eyes, are sometimes used to help tears stay on the surface of the eye. Plugs are designed to keep the tears from draining which allows the tear film to protect the eyes and relieve dry eye symptoms.

Alternative Treatments

Some doctors recommend nutritional supplements or diet alterations to help relieve dry eye symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil and flaxseed oils have been found to reduce symptoms of burning, stinging and redness associated with dry eye.

Contact Lens Use and Dry Eye         

If you have dry eye, it might be difficult for you to wear contact lenses because your tears are unable to keep the lenses wet or properly lubricated. Reducing contact lens wear time during the day helps the tear film to spread over the eye. There are also several contact lens material options available that can play a role in your comfort. Speak with your doctor to find out which one is the best for you.