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Dry eye: the most common eye condition no-one has heard of

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Joanna Bradley

Head of Patient Support Services, International Glaucoma Association

Dry eye affects one in three people over the age of 65 and can permanently affect vision in serious cases, yet many people have never even heard of it. What is it and how can you look after your eyes?

Dry eye syndrome is a common eye disorder that can make your eyes feel dry, scratchy and irritated, or very watery, and they can feel heavy and tired at the end of the day. Anyone can get dry eye, but it’s more common in women and those over 65.

One in every three people over the age of 65 experiences problems with dry eyes. It is worsened by time spent in front of computer screens and in air-conditioned environments.

One in every three people over the age of 65 experiences problems with dry eyes.

Dry eye syndrome and glaucoma commonly appear together. Studies suggest that 50-60% of people who are being treated for glaucoma also have dry eye syndrome and, at the IGA, we’re often asked about it.

Unfortunately, though, many people still don’t know this frustrating eye condition exists – not helped by its singularly unhelpful name.

What causes dry eye?

Dry eye is caused by problems with tear production. Tears are made up of three components: a mucous inner layer, an aqueous (watery) layer and an oily outer layer.

A smooth layer of tears is essential for sharp vision and the symptoms of dry eye vary depending on which layer is affected. If the oily outer layer is not working, the watery tears evaporate too quickly, causing more of the aqueous layer to be produced, hence the watery eyes.

In most cases, dry eye causes mild discomfort but, if severe, it can be painful and can even cause permanent damage to the eye surface. It very rarely causes long-term problems with sight but can cause fluctuating blurriness.

Symptoms of dry eye

The most common symptoms include:

  • Eyes feel heavy and tired
  • Difficulty reading or working on the computer
  • Blurry vision
  • Excessive eye watering
  • Discomfort when wearing contact lenses
  • Stinging or burning eyes
  • A sandy or gritty feeling
  • Pain and redness

If any of these symptoms are familiar, fear not. Dry eye disease can be successfully managed, although it is a chronic condition and may need several different treatments.

What can I do about dry eye?

Treating dry eye syndrome early is important because it can prevent permanent harm to the surface of the eye and so avoid damage to vision. The most common treatment is with artificial tears, a type of eye drop that is widely available without prescription. Other treatment options include steroid eye drops if the surface of the eye has become inflamed. If your symptoms are severe, contact your optometrist, GP or pharmacist for advice.

There are also lifestyle changes that can help. Managing dry eye involves improving tear production, reducing evaporation and reducing symptoms, so:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • If using a screen for a long periods of time, remember to blink(!)
  • Avoid alcohol, spicy foods, smoking or smoky areas
  • Protect your eyes on windy days by wearing glasses or sunglasses
  • Avoid air-conditioning and draughts, and consider using a humidifier to put more water into the air
  • Try massaging your eye lids gently with a clean warm cloth

For more information about glaucoma or dry eye, call our helpline 01233 64 81 70 or visit www.iga.org.uk to download or order free patient information booklets. The International Glaucoma Association (IGA) is the charity for people with glaucoma. We fund vital glaucoma research, raise awareness to prevent needless glaucoma sight loss, and help people to live well with glaucoma by providing advice and support. For more information please visit www.iga.org.uk.

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