Dry eye is a very common problem. Anyone can get it, but people are more likely to get it if they wear contact lenses, are over 65, or are female. Dry eyes don’t make enough tears to keep the eyes moist. In time and if left untreated, dry eye can scar the eye’s surface.
Usually, no serious medical problem exists. Natural aging, drugs (such as antihistamines, blood pressure medicines, and birth control pills), and living in a dry, dusty, or windy climate can cause dry eye. Other causes are air conditioning, dry heating systems, blinking problems (staring at a computer screen), and wearing contact lenses. Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or Sjögren’s syndrome, can rarely cause it. Autoimmune means that the immune system fights itself instead of disease or organisms. Some eye conditions and thyroid disease can also cause dry eye.
Symptoms include burning, itching, or stinging eyes; feeling as if grit or sand is in the eyes; and sensitivity to bright light. Stringy mucus in or around the eyes, eye fatigue, tearing, and blurred vision are other symptoms.
The health care provider makes a diagnosis from a description of symptoms. If the health care provider thinks that an eye disorder or another illness is causing dry eye, the health care provider may suggest seeing an ophthalmologist (specialist in eye diseases).
The specialist may do a Schirmer test. For this simple test, the health care provider numbs the eye and puts little paper tabs in the lower lid. After a few minutes, the health care provider removes the tabs and measures how damp they are. Tabs with too little moisture mean dry eye.
The eye health care provider may also do a slit lamp examination. The slit lamp has a microscope that makes the eye appear larger, so the health care provider can see more clearly if the surface of the eye has any damage.
Treatment includes using artificial tears, as eye drops, during the day. Ointments can add extra moisture to the eyes at night.
Other treatments include using hot compresses and eyelid scrubs or massages with baby shampoo (to give the eyes a thicker oily layer). Humidifiers, air filters, and slowing fans to stop too much air from moving can also help.
In severe cases, tiny plugs may be put into ducts that drain the tears of the eyes to provide more moisture.
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