If you have experienced scratchy, irritated eyes that are easily fatigued, you may have a medical condition called dry eye. Dry eye is characterized by inadequate tears to lubricate the eye surface and protect it. While some people dismiss dry eye as a minor irritation, it can be a sign of more significant underlying problems with eye health, requiring appropriate optometry care.
Who Is At Risk for Dry Eye?
Dry eye can affect anyone, no matter what their age or circumstances. However, certain groups of individuals are more likely to suffer from dry eye. Increasing age, use of certain medications, long-term contact use, medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes, jobs that require lengthy computer screen use, and environmental factors increase your risk of dry eye.
Causes of Dry Eye
There is not one single cause of dry eye; rather, the condition may have multiple origins. The underlying characteristic of dry eye is a lack of lubricating tears protecting the eye. Tears are an essential component of eye health. Composed of water, fatty oils, and mucus, a tear film covers the surface of your eye (also known as the cornea). As you blink, your eyelids spread tears across the cornea, while excess tears flow through small ducts in the inner corners of your eyelids. Tears lubricate the cornea, facilitate clear vision, prevent infection, and clear foreign particles from the eyes.
A common cause of dry eye is inadequate tear production, a medical condition called keratoconjunctivitis sicca. Decreased tear production is associated with age, gender, and other risk factors for dry eye; however, damage to the tear glands may also cause this problem.
Another cause of dry eye is poor tear quality. Problems with oil gland functioning, water production, or maintenance of a mucus layer lead to changes in tear quality. This disrupts the ability of the tear layer to lubricate and protect the eye, leading to irritation.
Structural problems with the eyelids may also lead to dry eye by reducing the effectiveness of blinking. Additionally, staring at a computer or phone screen reduces blinking frequency and may cause dry eye. Other causes include exposure to wind, dust, or other environmental factors that reduce tear effectiveness and irritate the eyes.
If you suffer from dry eye, one or more of these factors may be the underlying cause. To receive appropriate treatment, consult your optometrist for a thorough examination. Being proactive about your eye health ensures that your eyes function properly for years to come.
Mayo Clinic (2012). Dry eyes: Causes.
American Optometric Association (2012). Dry eye.