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Posted on 06-29-2016

Do your eyes often feel sandy or gritty?  Do they sting and burn?  Are they red, irritated, and blurry?  If so, you may be suffering from Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca, or what is more commonly known as Dry Eye Syndrome.  Dry eye occurs when tears are not able to provide adequate moisture to the eye.  What causes dry eye and how do we prevent or treat it?

Dry eye normally happens for one of two reasons:  An inadequate amount of tears, or poor quality of tears.  We all know what tears are, but do you know how they are made and what their purpose is?  Each time you blink, tears spread across your cornea, which is the front surface of the eye.  Tears are necessary to protect the overall health of your eye.  They keep the eye lubricated, wash away dust and debris, and help prevent eye infections.

Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, and have 3 main components: Oil, water, and mucus.  Each of these components serves a purpose in protecting the surface of the eye.  The oil layer helps to prevent evaporation of the water layer, while the mucus helps the water spread evenly over the cornea.  When tears evaporate too quickly or do not spread evenly across the eye, or when an inadequate amount of tears are produced, dry eye can happen. Symptoms include a dry, gritty feeling, redness and pain, excessive tears followed by dry periods, heavy eyelids, and blurred vision, just to name a few.

There are many causes and risk factors for dry eye.  Age is usually the most common.  Dry eye is a normal part of the aging process.  Gender can also be a factor.  Women are more likely to develop dry eye due to changes in hormones.  Certain medications and diseases also contribute to dry eye.  Antihistamines, blood pressure medication, decongestants, and anti-depressants can reduce the amount of tears your eyes produce.  People with chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid problems are more likely to have issues with dry eyes.  Dry eye may also result from prolonged contact lens wear and LASIK.

Dry eye is diagnosed through a comprehensive eye exam.   Your doctor will get a medical history and ask questions to determine what may be causing your symptoms.  The doctor will also examine the outside of the eye and evaluate the cornea and eyelids to check tear quality and production.  Finding out the cause is key, as dry eye can sometimes be caused by an underlying condition that may or may not have been diagnosed.  If that is the cause, then the underlying condition needs to be treated as well.

In most cases, dry eye can be treated with simple lifestyle changes or medication.  Artificial tears are a good place to start.  These can be used as often as needed to supplement natural tear production.  They will also help relieve irritation.  If contact lenses are the cause, your doctor may switch to a different brand to help alleviate the issue.  In more severe cases, prescription eye drops can help increase the production of tears.  Another way to relieve dry eye is to help conserve the tears you already have.  This is done by inserting punctual plugs into the eye.  These are silicone or gel-like plugs inserted into the tear ducts to keep tears in.  These are small and usually can't be felt, and can be removed if needed.

There are also things you can do yourself to help prevent dry eye symptoms.  One main thing is to remember to blink frequently when reading or staring at a computer screen for prolonged periods.  Wearing large, wrap-around sunglasses when outside will also help keep debris and wind out of the eye.  Increasing the humidity in the air in your home and at work will help keep tears from evaporating.  In addition, some supplements containing essential fatty acids can help conserve tears.  Ask your optometrist before starting any supplements to see if this may help with your dry eye problem.

Dry eye is a very common condition, affecting millions of Americans, but it can be easily managed.  Remember to keep up with your yearly eye exams, and if you are experiencing any dry eye symptoms, see your doctor and get that dry eye under control!

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