One of the most common eye complaints that we hear at Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons is the scratchy, gritty feeling commonly associated with a condition known as chronic dry eye. In most cases, dry eye is only a temporary irritant that can easily be soothed with various over-the-counter remedies. However, it may also potentially be a sign of something more serious and, if left untreated, may lead to serious eye infections and even long-term vision damage. Understanding why the eyes get “dry” in the first place is an important first step towards avoiding this condition and keeping the eyes in top shape.
In order for them to perform optimally, the eyes need to remain moist and well lubricated. This is accomplished through the constant production of tears, which include a combination of water (for moisture), natural oils (for lubrication), mucus (for consistency), and special proteins and antibodies (to help resist infection). If the balance of these components is compromised through natural hormone fluctuations or the effects of certain medications, or if the tear-flow system itself is disrupted by structural problems or environmental factors, the eye will become dry and irritated. Dry eye has always been a problem for some, but it has become far more common within the last few decades due to the increasing prevalence of electronic devices. People ordinarily blink about 12 to 17 times every minute, which spreads the tear solution across the surface of the eyes and keeps them clean and moist. However studies have found that, when gazing for long periods at a computer monitor, the blink rate slows to as little as four to five blinks per minute, allowing the tears to evaporate without being replenished. This is one of the factors that contribute to a condition called computer vision syndrome (CVS), which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, affects more than 70 percent of the 75 million workers who sit at computers every day.
Patients with dry eye generally experience a characteristic gritty sensation, as though sand or another foreign material were irritating the eye. This may also be accompanied by redness and itching, light sensitivity, or even a blurred vision. In some cases a person with dry eye will ironically have excess tears running down the cheeks. This is often a sign that the tear ducts are not producing enough oil and mucus, and that the tears that are being produced, which are mostly water, are not sufficiently coating and lubricating the eyes. While the symptoms may seem minor, they can actually be quite serious. If left untreated, chronically dry eyes have an increased risk for developing serious eye infections and even long-term damage to the surface of the eyes themselves in the form of corneal ulcers.
There are several different treatments for chronic dry eye, depending on the specific underlying causes of the condition. When dry eye is the result of environmental factors, like a dry climate or cigarette smoke, simply eliminating these irritants is often the best approach. Similarly, when dry eye is a side effect of certain medications minor adjustments can sometimes be made to alleviate symptoms. Some patients may even find dry-eye relief by supplementing their diet with omega-3 fatty acids, which are found naturally in foods like oily fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies) and flax seeds. Minor chronic cases are usually addressed with either non-prescription artificial tears or prescription anti-inflammatory medication like cyclosporine, which decreases corneal damage and increases basic tear production. Finally, serious problems may require the use of punctual tear plugs, which can be inserted into the tear drains at the corners of the upper and lower eyelids, restricting the amount of fluid that can drain from the eye and conserving the naturally-occurring tears. These tear plugs come in either silicone (permanent) or collagen (dissolvable) varieties and the dissolvable variety are frequently used to keep the eyes well moistened in patients recovering from many forms of eye surgery.
Chronic dry eye is just one of the many eye conditions, both routine and serious, that we regularly treat at Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons. If you have concerns about your vision health, or would like to schedule an eye exam with Dr. William Segal or Dr. Marc Lay, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons today. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more information on how to keep your vision healthy.