- Dry eye disease is a common condition where people don’t produce enough tears to lubricate their eyes.
- It can cause an intense sensitivity to light, the formation of mucus around the eyes, red and itchy eyes, and eye fatigue, among other symptoms.
- More than 16 million people in the United States have the condition.
- It’s more prevalent in women than in men, while the likelihood of developing dry eye increases more with age.
About 4 years ago, Melanie Yarger, 42, started having trouble with her vision. She noticed her eyes were red and itchy, with her vision becoming blurry. At first, she assumed it was just deteriorating eyesight that comes with aging, but then the irritation just kept getting worse with no relief.
Yarger, who works in Wood County, Ohio, as a service coordinator with children who have developmental disabilities, said she needs to have full use of her “acute vision” to do her job properly.
She told Healthline that it became hard to not just help the children in her care and interact with their families, but made it difficult to read and write and see well while driving.
Beyond all of this, Yarger said her bothersome eyes made her irritable, in turn, making day-to-day life hard as a mom of three. She tried everything — opting for glasses instead of contacts and cycling through expensive over-the-counter remedies that didn’t work.
Ultimately, she saw an ophthalmologist and was diagnosed with dry eye disease, or simply, dry eye.
What is it? It’s an all-too-common condition where you don’t produce enough tears to lubricate your eyes, according to Mayo Clinic.
In addition to the symptoms Yarger experienced, it can cause an intense sensitivity to light, the formation of mucus around your eyes, or eye fatigue, among others.
What causes dry eye
There’s no uniform cause for everyone who has dry eyes. Aging is one of the main culprits, along with decreases in your tear production.
Additionally, an over-reliance on staring at screens can impact your eye health, a common concern as COVID-19 has forced us inside, staring at computer monitors during endless video conferencing sessions and binge-watching your favorite shows on your TV or phone.
Yarger said it was a big relief to receive her diagnosis and to become better educated about “the anatomy of my eye” and how crucial eye health is to maintain. She was ultimately prescribed a medication called Xiidra that alleviates dry eye-causing inflammation.
Her story isn’t unusual. A report from the American Journal of Ophthalmology revealed that more than 16 million people in the United States have the condition. It’s more prevalent in women than in men, while the likelihood of developing dry eye increases more with age.
Dr. Preeya K. Gupta, a corneal specialist and ophthalmologist at Duke Health, said dry eye is sometimes a condition that flies under the radar, since not every clinician is automatically looking for it.
“In my own clinical practice, it’s something I see in patients earlier and earlier. Patients sometimes see dry eye as always something that happens when you got older or have certain risk factors, but I’m seeing, these days, with our digital lifestyle, that something is changing,” Gupta told Healthline.
She’s noticed that more people are coming in with “nontraditional symptoms” beyond redness, irritation, and scratchiness. For example, people are telling her their vision is blurry, fluctuating in and out.
Gupta added that it’s crucial that you reach out to an eye doctor or your primary care physician first before self-diagnosing. She said issues with eye health in general are unfortunately problems where people easily turn to Google searches first before seeking medical guidance.
“As a clinician, I often wish that patients would come in sooner. The reason is, this disease process responds to treatments better when patients are at an earlier stage of their disease,” Gupta explained. “It doesn’t just improve quality of life but also disease progression — I love to see patients earlier in their disease process.”
Dr. Craig See, a cornea specialist at Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute, told Healthline that, beyond sometimes being caused by a lack of tear production, it can also be evidenced in something called “evaporative dry eye,” when there is a lack of quality tear production resulting in oil gland blockages around the eyelids. This clogging up of these oil glands can lead to stye, a pimply blockage that can be painful and cause irritation.
When it comes to our obsession with screen time, both See and Gupta say they’ve treated a lot of people lately whose dry eyes have been made worse by watching or reading screens, staring fixedly for long periods of time without blinking.
See said there isn’t any data to conclusively show whether this has been made worse by the current COVID-19 lockdown, but he added that over time, as people spend most of their days staring at smartphones and looking at their computers at work, dry eye has become a regular part of modern daily life.
“Our digital lifestyle” has played a “significant role” in the prevalence of dry eye, Gupta added. She said that if you find yourself spending too much time with your screens, the remedy is simple: “Take a break.”
Why eye health is important, too
Both Gupta and See were in agreement again when asked whether eye health in general is less prioritized by people compared to other health concerns.
“I think, sometimes, we are really good at putting aside things that are obviously bothering us in a way that we would prioritize other things in our lives,” Gupta said. “I do think that patients have a hard time also making association of dry eye and blurry vision, and if it was more clear-cut that there was a problem, then they would focus on it.”
“It’s obvious when I can’t bend my finger that, ‘Maybe something broken.’ It’s not an obvious association with dry eye disease, and that makes it even tougher for patients prioritize eye health,” she added.
See said that people generally are diagnosed with dry eye only after seeking medical health for something unrelated. People usually don’t seek treatment for the condition on its own.
He added that people usually become more concerned if their initial blurred vision starts to get progressively worse. He said if your vision keeps decreasing, you should certainly seek a doctor’s help.
“Most dry eye is not vision threatening,” See added. “There is a tendency to say, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal.’ In most cases, people are OK. But it’s important that they listen to their eyes.”
For her part, now that she has been taking her medication to reduce inflammation and can put her finger on what was wrong with her vision in the first place, Yarger has been doing well.
“When I first heard ‘dry eye,’ it sounded really simple to me, but understanding how complex it is and how it does impact your eye and also affects your life, it really does make a vast impact on your whole state of living,” she said. “You really have to take care of your eyes. You only have one pair of them, you don’t want to miss out on life’s moments.”
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