Burning, itchy, and even gritty-feeling eyes are among the most common reasons for visits to the eye doctor-and the older you get, the more likely you are to have these symptoms. The condition, called dry-eye syndrome, is widespread among older Americans. More than 75 percent of postmenopausal women have some eye irritation. Men get the disorder, too: more than 1 million U.S. men over 50 have seriously dry eyes, according to recent studies. Discomfort isn’t the only issue. Light sensitivity and blurred or fluctuating vision are common symptoms of dry-eye syndrome. Worse yet, under-lubricated eyes are more likely to get scratched or infected, which could damage your vision permanently.
In some cases dry-eye syndrome is caused by other medical conditions and treating these conditions might alleviate or even reverse the eye problem. But for most sufferers, dryness just happens on its own and is a chronic annoyance. Some common medical conditions that can cause or worsen dry-eye syndrome are rosacea and other inflammatory skin conditions, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory disorders, diabetes, and Sjogren’s syndrome. Treating them could alleviate eye discomfort. On the other hand, some medical treatments can dry out your eyes. These include some allergy pills, diuretics, beta-blockers, antidepressants, sleeping pills, Botox injections which can paralyze the blinking muscles, and LASIK surgery which can sever nerves for blinking and tear production.
Your eye’s tear film is actually composed of three layers: mucus on the surface of the eye, a watery layer, and an oily top layer that helps hold moisture in place. Each of these liquids comes from a different gland in or near your eyelids, and if any of these glands slows down production, the results can be unpleasant. Though there is no cure, there is plenty you can do to keep symptoms under control.
The first step in dealing with dry eyes is to check your environment for factors that
might be contributing to the problem.
- Dry winter air can worsen dry eyes so running a humidifier may help. An air purifier will cut down on dust and debris.
- Contact lenses inhibit the flow of cleansing tears and they also absorb moisture, so consider making the switch to eyeglasses.
- If you spend hours looking at a computer or a TV screen, take frequent breaks. When you are doing these activities, you blink less often than when you are cooking, taking a walk, or engaged in other relaxing pursuits.
- Sleep also plays a role in how your eyes feel during the day. A minimum of eight hours of restful sleep per night helps your eye’s cells repair themselves.
- Avoid secondhand smoke and wear goggles when swimming to cut down exposure to irritants.
- Direct fans and vents away from your face. That steady breeze may feel refreshing but if s working overtime drying out your eyes.
- Use sunglasses that wrap around the sides of your face by your eyes. This will help you protect yourself better from glare, wind, and dust.
- Wear a hat with a brim to minimize the sun’s ability to evaporate your tears.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Omega-6 oils in processed foods can trigger a drying inflammation response in your body, including in the tiny glands around your eyes. But eating salmon, walnuts, and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can counteract that response and keep eyes moister.
- Hydrate your eyes from the inside out. Drinking at least six eight-ounce glasses of water daily helps keep dry eyes moist.
- For a soothing, if temporary, treatment for dry eyes, place damp compresses on your eyes for a couple of minutes up to three times a day. Use cold compresses if your dryness is due to allergies or rosacea, otherwise use warm ones. Gently massage the edge of your eyelids with a warm, wet washcloth every day, to keep tear glands from becoming clogged.
If changing your environment and habits doesn’t do the trick, an over-the-counter eye lubricant drop might help. There are many to choose from, whichever drop you find most soothing is the one to use. If you use the drops more than four times per day, use a preservative free drop, which comes in single-use vials. Avoid drops formulated for reducing redness, they contain a drug that constricts blood vessels but doesn’t treatment dryness. If you are still having trouble, another option is a gel or ointment that you apply to your eyes at bedtime. Because they can blur your vision, they are inappropriate for daytime use. Many people who use them at bedtime however, wake up with clearer, less dry eyes.
If you have tried these over-the-counter remedies with no improvement, prescription drops may help. Steroid drops could provide immediate relief but avoid using these for more than a few weeks as extended use may cause side effects, including glaucoma and cataracts. Another prescription eye drop, Restasis, can be effective but requires two to three months of consistent use before noticeable results. These drops may also sting in some patients. If prescription drops don’t help, your doctor may suggest punctal plugs. Plugs fill the tear duct (the tiny holes in eyelids that drain away tears.) These plugs help your eyes retain moisture and can be placed during an office visit. Dry eyes can be an inconvenience, but they don’t have to be more than that. Taking the steps to keep your eyes comfortable can also protect your eyesight for years to come.