If you experience dry eyes, you’re certainly not alone. It’s estimated 12 million people in the United States experience the symptoms of dry eyes – most of them women over sixty. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons that people visit their eye doctor. The disease is the result of an imbalance in the tear mechanism.
Those who suffer with the condition may have difficulty moving their eyelids, are sensitive to bright lights, and find it difficult to read. Oddly, others with dry eyes may find their eyes watering. That’s because your eyes try to compensate for the imbalanced tear mechanism by releasing additional moisture.
But if the moisture isn’t getting into the eye area, the tearing will continue. If you have dry eyes, your eyes may also sting or burn. You might also experience dry eyes in certain situations, such as on an airplane, in an air-conditioned room or after looking at a computer screen for a few hours.
In many cases, the dry-eye condition, known as keratoconjuctivitis sicca, accompanies other problems such as arthritis and thyroid disease associated with bulging eyes. Dry eyes can also be caused by a vitamin A deficiency, and it’s also more common in people who have had laser eye surgery.
Certain medications also cause the conditions such as high blood pressure pills (specifically those that contain diuretics), antihistamines and decongestants, some antidepressants, and pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and naproxen (Aleve).
The eye is a complicated organ. There are actually two systems of tearing. One is the constant flow of liquid that coats the eye with a film to keep the cornea moist. A second, back-up system produces a large flow of tears in response to an emotional stimulus, to an irritant such as smoke, wind or even a response to a dry eye.
Tears contain a combination of water, mucus, and fat; they also contain sugar, protein, and a bacteria-destroying enzyme that protects the eye against infection. When the balance of this system is thrown off, burning, itching, and a scratchy or sandy sensation may result.
Although the condition cannot be cured, it can usually be managed. The most common remedy is one of a wide variety of eye drops available over-the-counter at pharmacies. It is important to consult your doctor before buying one at random because the remedies correct different kinds of imbalances in the tearing mechanism.
For people who suffer from severe dry eyes, a cellulose replacement is available. It melts in the eye, providing relief by keeping the eye moist for as long as twelve hours. Other prescription medications are also available.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge’s medical reporter. Check for her daily updates.
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