What is Dry Eye?

For some people, their eyes are just another organ with which they pay little attention to, as long as they’re functioning properly. But for others, their eyes are often a source of irritation and constant awareness. If you belong to the latter group and experience stinging, burning, or scratchiness, you may have dry eye. Dry eye is a common condition that occurs when the tear film is unable to properly lubricate or protect 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. While estimates vary, one study recently estimated that roughly 5 million people in the United States suffer from moderate-to-severe dry eye, with millions more exhibiting less severe symptoms.

What Causes Dry Eye?

Dry eye is often exacerbated by a number of lifestyle components including smoking, contact lens wear, ocular surgery, aging, oral antihistamines, and systemic medications. Dry eye can also be made worse by extended visual tasking in which your eyes need to be focused for a long period of time, such as watching television or using the computer. Dry eye patients must be aware of their surrounding environment, as it greatly impacts their disease, and ultimately, their quality of life.

For patients living in the northern part of the United States, dry eye can be especially challenging during the winter months, as the air is drier and the humidity is decreased both outdoors and indoors. Time spent outside gives way to problematic weather, such as cold, brisk air and strong winter winds; however, even indoors during the winter months, stresses like hot air vents, fireplaces, and wood stoves can potentially worsen dry eye. Throughout the day, it is important to determine if your environment is adding to your discomfort. Simple steps such as using a humidifier to moisten the air in your home or office, wearing glasses in windy conditions, or not allowing air to blow directly in your face can all help to reduce dry eye discomfort.

Dry Eye and You

If you experience dryness, burning, grittiness, or feel something strange in your eye, then it could mean that you have dry eye. Most symptoms worsen in the following situations: in winter when the air is drier, in air conditioned rooms where air is always blowing, or at work where you look at a computer screen all day. In addition to noticing your dry eye symptoms, it is important to note when they happen.

The best way for you to find out whether you have dry eye or not is to check with an ophthalmologist. They can help figure out if you have the condition by running a few simple tests that look at the health of your tear film. It’s important to know that if your dry eye is left untreated for a long time, it can damage your eyes.

How do I Treat Dry Eye?

Discomfort and dryness are often the main symptoms of dry eye patients. Your ophthalmologist can suggest treatments that can 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.

Prescription Methods

Currently, Restasis is the only prescription available to treat the main causes of dry eye.

Over the Counter Products

Artificial tear products can be an excellent way to add to your natural tear film to reduce drying in your eye. Artificial tear products can also give you more comfort. They are available in many over-the-counter varieties. The key is to use the drops before your eyes begin to feel uncomfortable, or before entering a place where you know you will have dry eye symptoms. In addition to eye drops, some thicker eye creams are available. Eye creams are hard to use during the day because of their thickness, but they can be used at night to help reduce more severe dry eye symptoms.

Knowing Your Environment

Throughout the day, it is important to see if your environment is adding to your discomfort. The air may be too dry from heat or air conditioning. Simple things such as using a humidifier to moisten the air in your home or office, wearing glasses in windy conditions, or not allowing air to blow in your face in the car, can help reduce dry eye discomfort.

Dry Eye and Contact Lenses

If you have dry eye, it may make it hard for you to wear contact lenses because your tears may be unable to keep the lenses wet, or properly lubricated. Contact lenses can cause you to lose wetness from your tear film. They can also soak up some of the tear film, so that the rest of the eye is not covered. This can cause discomfort. Staying away from dry environments, and using rewetting drops to keep both the eye and contact lens wet can reduce drying caused by contact lenses. Also, reducing how long you wear contact lenses during the day helps the tear film to spread over the eye. There are 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.

Medication and Dry Eye

Some common medications you may take for allergies, depression, colds, arthritis, or birth control may dry out certain tissues in your body. This could cause your eyes to make fewer tears. These medications, typically those that are taken systemically (medication that is taken to affect the entire body, such as a pill), can sometimes have side effects. These side effects may include dehydration, dry mouth, or dry eyes. It is important to speak with your doctor about the side effects of dry eye medication.