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Dry eye syndrome is a condition resulting from inadequate lubrication by natural tears. In cases where there is insufficient oil, tears evaporate too quickly, leading to inadequate eye lubrication. Although the symptoms are usually more irritating than severe, individuals may experience stinging or burning eyes, blurred vision, a scratchy or gritty feeling, light sensitivity or excessive tearing.

While dry eyes themselves won’t cause blindness, neglecting treatment can impact both short-term and long-term vision. The syndrome is commonly linked to underlying conditions, and treatment solutions vary depending on the specific cause.

This condition affects 5-10% of Americans (16 million to 50.2 million people) and nearly 344 million individuals globally. This article will give you a deeper understanding of what dry eye syndrome is, how to treat it and the best prevention methods. Keep reading for more:

Understanding Dry Eye Syndrome

The two main types of dry eye syndrome are chronic dry eye and meibomian gland dysfunction. Chronic dry eye, also known as dry eye disease or keratoconjunctivitis sicca, is a persistent condition where the eyes fail to produce enough quality tears. This can result from factors like aging, hormonal changes or environmental conditions. Meibomian Gland Dysfunction (MGD) is a condition characterized by issues with the meibomian glands responsible for producing the oily part of tears. When these glands don’t function properly, it results in an insufficient oil layer on the tear film, leading to rapid tear evaporation and contributing to dry eyes.

The tear film is produced by the lacrimal glands. This film nourishes your cornea, the first layer of the eye, and provides protection and moisture that is required for clear, healthy vision. The tear film is made of three vital layers: the outer oily layer, the middle aqueous layer and the inner mucous layer. Each layer plays a crucial role in maintaining the stability and health of the tear film.

  • Oily layer: The oily layer is the outermost layer. It is made inside of the eye’s meibomian glands. This layer’s role is to make the tear surface smooth and prevent tears from drying too fast.
  • Water layer: The water layer is the middle layer and is created in the lacrimal glands of the eyelids. Its purpose is to clean the eye of any dust or minuscule debris that might be in your eye.
  • Mucus layer: The mucus layer in the innermost layer. It is made in the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that’s over the white of your eye. The mucus helps spread the watery layer and makes the tears stick to the eye.

Issues with any one of these layers can result in dry eyes. Beyond that, several other factors can cause dry eyes. These include:

  • Prolonged Screen Time. Many careers are tech-focused and require long periods of screen time that dry the eyes.
  • Environmental Conditions. Living in polluted areas with exposure to smoke, extremely dry air or heavy wind and cold temperatures can irritate your eyes and cause them to become chronically dry.
  • Hormonal Changes. When women experience menopause, the hormonal changes can cause dryness throughout the whole body, including the eyes. 
  • Autoimmune Disorders. Dry eyes can be caused by many different autoimmune disorders. These include diabetes, lupus and thyroid disorders Certain Medications. Dry eyes may be included as one of the side effects of common medications, like antihistamines or antidepressants.
  • Medical Conditions. Dry eyes can also be caused by certain medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjörgen’s syndrome.

The symptoms produced by these causes can vary as well. They are often more irritating and uncomfortable than painful. These include:

  • Excessively watery eyes
  • Burning or gritty sensation in eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Redness or bloodshot eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Blurry, fluctuating vision
  • A feeling of dryness or discomfort in the eye

While dry eye symptoms can be annoying in the initial phases, it is possible to experience real vision problems (such as blurred vision or even slight vision loss) if left untreated. For this reason, it is important to consult your doctor to find the cause of your dry eyes and seek treatment early to prevent further issues. Many of the underlying causes of dry eye can be treated, preventing long-term vision damage.

Long-term dryness poses a risk to the cornea, potentially causing scarring, tears and infections that may result in vision impairment if left untreated. This vision impairment may include blurred vision, irritation, discomfort and fluctuating focus but complete blindness is unlikely. Regardless, early intervention is key to preventing severe complications and vision loss. Regular check-ups with your eye doctor, especially when experiencing symptoms, ensure proper diagnosis and timely treatment to safeguard your eye health.

Diagnosis and Treatment

When you experience chronic dry eye syndrome, consulting an eye professional (such as an optometrist) for a diagnosis is the best step. Make sure to discuss all of your symptoms in detail when meeting with this expert. They should conduct a comprehensive eye exam with several tests that: 

  • Measure tear quantity and quality
  • Evaluate the health of the cornea
  • And assess the function of the meibomian glands

Treatment Options

There are various treatment options available for dry eye syndrome, especially once the cause is identified. It might be as straightforward as using over-the-counter (OTC) artificial tears, prescription eye drops, or ointments to enhance eye moisture and alleviate discomfort. Alternatively, a more involved approach, such as LipiFlow, may be necessary. LipiFlow is a procedure that specifically addresses and corrects issues with the meibomian glands—the glands responsible for producing the oily layer of the tear film and preventing rapid tear evaporation.

In some cases, combatting dry eyes triggered by allergies may involve the use of antihistamines, while addressing dryness associated with hormonal changes linked to menopause may require targeted interventions or hormone therapy. Dry eyes could also be due to a nutritional deficiency, necessitating an increase in Vitamin A, or be a side effect of antidepressants. Identifying the underlying cause is crucial, as it significantly influences the prescribed treatment’s effectiveness.

As a patient you should thoroughly educate yourself about your condition and adhere to the treatment plan provided by a medical professional. Taking charge of your eye health involves attending follow-up appointments and discussing any potential adjustments or changes with your qualified eye professional.

Preventive Measures and Management

Preventing dry eye syndrome is possible. It requires establishing good eye care habits and having an overall healthy lifestyle. One of the simplest ways is to maintain a clean environment for your eyes and practice good hygiene. For example, avoid touching your eyes with unclean hands. Other simple preventative measures that you can incorporate into your life include:

Lifestyle Changes

Consider introducing a humidifier into your home or workspace, particularly during the winter months, to combat dryness in the air. Be intentional about taking breaks every 20 minutes of screen time, directing your gaze at something 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. This practice can effectively reduce eye strain associated with prolonged screen use. Additionally, make a conscious effort to blink regularly, as insufficient blinking can contribute to eye dryness.

Maintaining proper eye hygiene is equally essential. Adhere to the recommended cleaning instructions for your contact lenses, ensuring they stay free of contaminants. Avoid the habit of rubbing your eyes with unwashed hands to minimize the risk of bacterial infections or irritations. These simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in safeguarding your eye health and preventing discomfort.

Nutritional Support

Adequate hydration and proper diet are important factors for the health of your eyes. Hydration affects tear quality and production. Without the necessary nutrients, your eyes won’t have the proper nourishment to help maintain their health. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, flaxseeds and walnuts, can support overall eye health. 

Environmental Considerations

As previously mentioned, using a humidifier will enhance moisture levels in the air and effectively prevent tear evaporation. Additionally, prioritizing the use of sunglasses will offer your eyes an extra layer of protection, guarding against unfavorable weather conditions, wind, airborne particles and the detrimental impact of UV rays. 

Contact Lens Hygiene

It is highly important to follow the prescribed wearing schedule for your contact lenses. Overwear can cause dry eye symptoms. Always wash your hands properly with soap and water before touching your lenses. Be sure to only use the recommended contact lens solution to clean, rinse and store lenses. Other liquids could contaminate them and introduce harmful bacteria or particles to your eye.

Connection to Other Medical Conditions

Dry eye syndrome can be linked to underlying medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues, causing inflammation. It has been known to affect other areas, including the eyes. Inflammation in the eye could affect the tear glands, affecting the quality and production of tears. Sjogren’s syndrome, affects glands that are responsible for moisture production in the body, leading to dry eyes.

Addressing Concerns About Blindness

Severe, untreated dry eye syndrome can impact vision and eye health, but total blindness is extremely rare. It’s important to address your initial symptoms promptly by seeking professional help for a diagnosis and treatment plan. Adherence to your prescribed treatment, which may include eye drops, will provide relief and help prevent moderate symptoms from escalating to severe complications, thereby minimizing the risk of vision impairment. Scheduling routine eye exams with your optometrist is also essential for proactive eye health maintenance.

Final Thoughts

While dry eye syndrome is common, it is treatable and often preventable. Make sure to seek treatment early on if you have symptoms—an eye professional can help you create a treatment plan to stop the issue from worsening. If you’re interested in educating yourself more on the underlying causes of dry eye syndrome, read more from the ophtalmaolgists at UCF Health