Probably, the most common problem seen in the eye doctor’s office is dry eyes. As we age, the protective tear film on the surface of the eye diminishes. This leaves the delicate tissues of the eye exposed to the drying effects of air, wind, dust and sun. The eye can still make tears; in fact, many patients complain of wet eyes and tearing with this malady. That’s because the dryness produces a reflex tearing in an effort to keep the eye well lubricated.
For many people the dryness is worse in the afternoon and evening. Since we blink less frequently when we read, reading or computer use can also aggravate the symptoms of dry eyes. Sometimes environmental factors play a role as well. Dry weather, either in hot or cold temperatures, robs the eye of needed lubricants. Cigarette smoke, fumes, dust and airborne particles are common irritants. In most patients, this condition is not associated with any systemic disease.
Symptoms include burning, stinging or a gritty sensation which may come and go depending on many factors. Itching, tearing and light sensitivity may bother other patients. Occasionally, long strings of mucus can be found in a person with dry eyes.
Treatment helps in most patients. We cannot cure this condition, so treatment must be an ongoing project.
Usually, artificial tears, available over-the-counter, soothe the eyes and give temporary relief. The problem is that they only work for an hour or two, at best, and must be repeated at frequent intervals. Ointments last longer, but they blur vision and are most effective at night. Occasionally, punctual plugs to block the outflow of tears away from the eye are needed. This is analogous to putting a plug in the bathtub drain. Prescription medication eye drops are also available to increase tear function and production.
Another method of treatment for seriously dry eyes are soft contact lenses in combinations with artificial tears. Sometimes a slow-release medicine under the lower lid is helpful as well. Much research is being done on this subject because it is such a problem.