Have you experienced that dreaded dry eye feeling? Having dry eyes is an extremely uncomfortable condition affecting millions of people every year. Here’s why you may have dry eyes, and what you can do to feel better.
Feeling like you have sandpaper in your eyes, or have eyes that are bloodshot, red, itchy or irritated? These are all symptoms of a very common condition referred to as dry eye disease or dry eye syndrome.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology found that dry eye is on the rise, so if you’ve experienced it, you’re hardly alone. More than 5% of adults have dry eye disease, and it’s prevalent in nearly 8% of women and 3% of men.
Here we’ll take a look at some reasons your eyes may feel dry, and help you know what you can do about it.
What causes dry eyes?
Both aging and environmental factors are culprits that contribute to dry eyes. It comes down to chronic inflammation caused by constant dysfunction of the eyes not producing enough tears.
Before we get into what might lead to that dysfunction and lack of tear production, it makes sense to have a simple understanding of how our eyes produce tears in the first place.
We all have a tear film that is made up of three layers, and each of these layers has a different role in tear production and eye health. When all three function as they should and work together, your eyes stay lubricated and feel normal.
- First, the lipid layer: This is the fatty, outer layer of the tear film. Meibomian glands secrete oils along your eyelids, prevent tear evaporation, and protect the eye from intruders, such as pollen and dust. It’s most often dysfunction of the meibomian glands that leads to dry eyes.
- Next comes the aqueous layer: This is found just below your upper brow. When you blink, your lacrimal glands dispense a bit of the aqueous layer. Your eyelids then spread it across your eye.
- Finally, the mucin layer: This inner layer is the closest to the cornea and is composed of proteins that ensure the tears get evenly coated across your cornea.
What happens when the tear film system breaks down?
First, let’s consider the effects of aging. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for stimulating tear production, and there’s a decrease in our bodies of that hormone as we age. This is also why women primarily have trouble with dry eyes, at more than twice the rate as men.
Beyond aging, there are also environmental reasons the surface of your eye will feel dry, including wearing contact lenses, staring at a screen all day, having allergies and using allergy medicines or other medications. Your tear production can also be disrupted when you’ve been on an airplane, if you’ve been biking or walking in the wind or cold, or if you’ve been around smoke.
What to do about dry eyes
It’s important not just to ignore dry eyes. Left untreated over the long term, the surface of your eyes can become damaged if you don’t produce enough tears, and that damage can lead to vision-threatening conditions.
Most people with dry eyes find relief with regular use of artificial tears or over-the-counter eye drops. Just like your skin needs lotion every day to feel moisturized, eye drops help lubricate your eyes.
If you have chronic dry eyes, you’ll want to make an appointment with your eye doctor, who can provide the best treatment options. He or she may prescribe medications and can help you understand the lifestyle changes you can make to help your eyes feel better. Some of these lifestyle changes may include:
- Getting enough sleep
- Hydrating with ample water every day
- Eating a diet rich in hydrating vegetables, fruits, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
- Wearing sunglasses when outside
- Using a humidifier in your home
- Limiting screen time or incorporating more breaks
- Quitting smoking
In some cases, your doctor may suggest plugs for your tear ducts (called punctal plugs), which keep the tears where they are supposed to be. More rarely, surgery may be required.
It’s a good feeling to know there are solutions for dry eyes. If you’ve been dealing with the discomfort of dry eyes and need help finding the best treatment, contact us for an appointment today.