The temperature is dropping and so are the varied Minnesota leaves. While many look forward to autumn’s crisp air, colorful foliage, and pumpkin-flavored . . . well . . . everything, those with allergies face fall with an itchy foreboding.
Except – what if it isn’t allergies?
Allergies that flare up in the autumn months can coexist with – and often be mistaken for – dry eye disease. Ocular allergies often cause many of the same symptoms as dry eye. If you find yourself suffering from uncomfortable symptoms past a hard freeze, it may be time to see an optometrist.
Dry Eye Symptoms
Symptoms can vary from person to person, but can include:
- Itchiness or burning
- Gritty feeling
- Eye fatigue, particularly while doing an activity that requires sustained visual attention
- Heavy eyelids
- Blurry vision
- Extra sensitivity to light, smoke, wind, or dry environments
- Watery eyes (Really! When eyes are dry, glands may overcompensate and produce too many tears)
When looking at this list, it’s important to distinguish between chronic dry eyes and temporary dry eyes, which can happen for anyone at the end of the day. Temporary dry eyes can also be caused by long hours at a computer, by leaving contacts in for too long, or by being in a windy or smoky location. Chronic dry eyes will cause these symptoms to linger for days, weeks, or even longer.
What Causes Dry Eye
Tears are necessary for ocular health and clear vision. When we blink, our tears spread across the cornea, or front surface of the eye. Excess tears drain into ducts in the inner corners of our eyelids, then travel into the back of the nose. These tears lubricate and wash away foreign matter in the eye, keeping the surface smooth and clear and helping to reduce risk of infection.
People with chronic dry eye either have tears of poor quality or not enough of them. Tears are made up of water, oil, and mucus, in three layers. The outer layer of oil helps prevent evaporation of the second layer of water; the third layer of mucus helps to evenly spread tears across the surface of the cornea. Dry eye can occur if there are deficiencies in any of these layers, as this may cause tears to spread unevenly across the eye or even evaporate too quickly. Dry eye symptoms can also develop from a shortage of tears, which are produced by several glands around and in the eyelids.
Dry eye can happen for myriad reasons. Medications, particularly anti-inflammatories, can cause loss of moisture. An imbalance may occur because of irritated oil glands. An imbalance of hormones, especially estrogen, can cause dry eyes as well. Illnesses (such as diabetes, thyroid issues, or rheumatoid arthritis), eye injury or trauma, and certain skin conditions can also produce effects that lead to dry eyes.
Certain people are more likely to get dry eye than others. Women tend to experience dry eye more often than men, due to fluctuations in estrogen from birth control, pregnancy, or menopause. People over age 50 are particularly susceptible to dry eye, as tear glands are less efficient with age. Still, it is a problem that can affect anyone.
How to Avoid Dry Eye
Thankfully, there are many things we can do to help protect ourselves against dry eye, and most are good rules for general health, too.
- Blink! Make sure to give your eyes breaks from tasks that require intense focus. A good rule of thumb is to step away from an eye-taxing duty, such as computer work, every twenty minutes.
- Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.
- Just as they protect our skin from the sun, hats and sunglasses can protect our eyes from dust and other airborne particles, as well as drying wind and sun. Wear ‘em when you can.
- Clean your home’s vents to reduce the circulation of indoor irritants.
- Increase the humidity of the air around you.
There are many other simple ways to combat dry eye, depending on the cause. If you find yourself fighting what you believe to be dry eye, contact us for an evaluation. Uptown Eye Care is proud to be an accredited Dry Eye Center, and Dr. Elaine Happ specializes in treating dry eye disease. Click here to learn more about our Tear Lab and how Uptown uses this advanced diagnostic tool to help you diagnose, treat, and control your (soon to be formerly) dry eyes.