The scratchy or gritty sensation and stinging and burning that can accompany dry eyes can be extremely irritating. These symptoms are often exacerbated by everyday activities such as prolonged sessions in front of a computer screen, hanging out in an air-conditioned, dehumidified room, or traveling by airplane. Eyes can become so dry that wearing contact lenses becomes impossible. Dry eyes may look perfectly normal, or may be red and full of mucus, or even tear excessively as the eyes react to the underlying irritation. Although dry eyes are almost always benign, they can make some people more susceptible to corneal ulcers and infection.
What causes dry eyes?
Dry eyes are extremely common. They can affect anyone but become more common with age. Up to 30 percent of people over 50 have dry eyes; as we get older, tear production decreases and the rate of evaporation increases. Other risk factors for dry eyes include menopause, a prior history of laser surgery to the eyes, and various medications–notably, antihistamines, decongestants, diuretics, and some antidepressants. Far less commonly, certain diseases can be responsible for dry eyes; the most prominent condition is Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune illness that can also cause dry mouth and systemic symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, and muscle and joint aches.
What can I do to treat my dry eyes?
If you have dry eyes, there are a few things you can try on your own that have a very high likelihood of success and virtually no significant risk. First, try artificial tears. Often, a single drop or two can provide hours of relief. Many varieties of artificial tears are available over the counter. Don’t be afraid to try several until you find one that works best for you.
You might also try taking supplements. There is some evidence that taking oral omega-3 fatty acid supplements every day can dramatically improve dry eyes. In one study, 70 percent of people who took a daily supplement containing 450 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid, 300 mg of docusahexaenoic acid and 1,000 mg of flaxseed oil (a common mix of fatty acids found in many over-the-counter supplements) for 90 days experienced symptom relief, compared to only 7 percent of people who took a placebo. If you’d rather get your fatty acids the natural way, incorporate food sources of omega-3 into your diet. Canola oil, flaxseed oil, walnuts, wild Alaskan salmon, and tuna are all good sources.
Another option is to talk to your health care provider about prescription medications for dry eyes, but these can have side effects.
Finally, if none of these techniques works for you, ask your ophthalmologist if he or she can place tiny silicone plugs in your tear ducts. These will prevent your tears from being reabsorbed and thus keep them in your eyes for much longer, soothing and lubricating.
Dry eyes can be a chronic, annoying problem, but for the vast majority of people, they can be successfully managed with one or two simple over-the-counter interventions.