Chronic Dry Eye Is Common, Painful and Often Unrecognized
Aug 04, 2016
From time to time, everyone experiences eye irritation for one reason or another -- as a consequence of hay fever, a windswept bit of debris or burning the midnight oil to meet a project deadline.
For individuals with persistent Dry Eye symptoms, however, eye discomfort is an “all-the-time, all-day experience” that affects their quality of life and vision, according to Eric Carlson, Therapeutic Unit Head, Cornea & Inflammation at Alcon. An avid hiker since his days as a Boy Scout, he likened the condition to setting off on a multi-mile hike and developing a painful heel blister within the first few miles.
“These patients’ eyes are uncomfortable, burning, stinging,” Eric said. “It can shut you down, and they experience it all the time.”
Despite the nagging discomfort, most individuals with Dry Eye – estimated to be one in every eight adults in the United States alone – don’t realize the cause. Many attribute their red, irritated eyes to allergies or infections such as conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye.” 1, 2 Dry Eye frequently develops over years or decades before it is recognized and treated. It can be a temporary or permanent condition. 3
What Is Chronic Dry Eye?
Understanding Dry Eye begins with recognizing the role of tears in bathing, nourishing and protecting the eye surface. As the name suggests, Dry Eye is a chronic condition characterized by insufficient moisture in the eyes. It occurs when the eyes fail to produce enough tears or when the tears being produced lack the proper consistency and quality, and evaporate too quickly, leaving the eyes without enough lubrication.1, 4
In addition to burning and stinging, Dry Eye symptoms include pain, redness, swelling, itchiness, the feeling that something sandy or gritty is in the eyes, a stringy discharge, eye fatigue, uncomfortable contact lenses, episodes of blurred vision, especially later in the day, and even excessive tearing.1, 4
“Sometimes, Dry Eye is diagnosed when someone suffers from eyes that constantly water,” Eric explained. “That person may produce tears that aren’t sticking to the eyes.”
Dry Eye can make it difficult to use a computer, read for extended periods or do anything that requires sustained visual attention. It can also decrease tolerance for dry environments, such as planes.4
While living with Dry Eye may sound like more of a nuisance than a serious illness, the condition can have long-lasting effects if ignored. Inflammation of the eye surface may occur, leading to ulcers, scars on the cornea and some loss of vision. However, permanent vision loss from Dry Eye is uncommon.4
The most common treatment is non-prescription artificial tears that provide temporary relief for dry eye symptoms by supplementing the body’s natural tear production. Immunosuppressant drugs available by prescription can increase tear production. Patients may also undergo non-surgical procedures to prevent tears from draining from the eyes. Surgery to close tear ducts is usually a last resort if non-surgical procedures are unsuccessful.1
Although Dry Eye can occur at any age, older people are especially vulnerable because tear production naturally slows with age. Five million of the estimated 33 million Americans with Dry Eye are age 50 or older. Women are more likely to develop Dry Eye than men, particularly following menopause.1, 4
The causes of Dry Eye are many, including congenital eye problems that affect tear production, refractive eye surgeries such as LASIK, foreign bodies such as eye makeup and hair, and some medications. Among the latter are treatments for acne, allergies, depression, high blood pressure, insomnia and extreme pain, as well as some contraceptives.1
Certain medical conditions are also associated with dry eye, including rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s Syndrome.