Dry Eyes: Causes and Treatments
Learn why tears are so essential to eye health, and how to treat dry eyes.
Tears are absolutely essential to keeping your eyes healthy and comfortable. Sometimes our eyes don’t produce enough tears on their own to provide enough lubrication, or they produce the wrong kind of tears. This condition is commonly called “dry eyes,” and if not treated, can lead to serious damage of the eye’s surface.
First, let’s go over how tears work and why they are so essential. The action of blinking spreads a thin layer of tears (a tear film) over the eye surface, keeping them lubricated. This film contains three layers: oily, watery and mucus, each helping to keep the eye smooth and clear. Usually this film is thin enough to only keep our eyes moist, but when our eyes get irritated or we begin crying, we begin producing a lot of tears. Sometimes we don’t produce enough tear fluid, which is what causes dry eyes.
There are many different causes for decreased production of tears—first and foremost, that people tend to make less of them as they get older. They can also be the result of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, or thyroid disorders, or eye disorders like blepharitis (when eyes are swollen and red). Dry eyes can be the result of being in a smoky room, a windy or dry climate, or staring at the computer screen for too long. Extended contact lens wearing, LASIK eye surgery and certain medications like beta blockers can also cause eyes to become dry.
Dry eyes feel like they are irritated and burning. It can often feel like something is in your eye and they may be red and stinging. Dry eyes make it painful to wear contact lenses and, oddly enough, can sometimes lead to the overproduction of tears. Occasionally dry eyes happen to everyone, but if your symptoms have lasted a long time or if they are interfering with everyday life, make an appointment with your doctor. Your ophthalmologist will thoroughly examine your eyelids, eye surface and blinking to test the quality of your tears. If left untreated, severely dry eyes can cause infections and damage to the surface of the eye.
Dry eyes can be treated using over the counter artificial tears, but it’s always a good idea to get a doctor’s diagnosis before self medicating. Sometimes your ophthalmologist will want you to use prescription eye drops, warm compresses, or even suggest a procedure that blocks your tear ducts making your natural tears stay in longer. They also may suggest lifestyle changes like decreased computer use, protective eyewear or quitting smoking.