—a guest column by Afshan Nanji, M.D., M.P.H.–
Dry eye is a source of discomfort for millions of Americans and a frequent cause of patient visits to an eye care provider. Although it is seen most commonly among women and older patients, it can occur in anyone. Dry eye causes symptoms such as irritation, redness, fluctuating vision, and a gritty or sandy sensation in the eyes.
Dry eye happens when the eyes don’t produce enough tears or when the tears evaporate too quickly. Low tear production has many causes, including medications (antihistamines, antidepressants, and others), autoimmune diseases, and hormonal changes. Short evaporation time may be caused by decreased production of the oily layer of tears that prevents evaporation. It can also be caused by environmental factors, such as low-humidity environments (heated or air-conditioned offices and airplanes) or from the inability to close your lids.
In some cases, dry eye can be prevented or easily managed. Some examples are:
• Blinking! Blinking helps move the tears across the eye surface, but we forget to blink when we’re focused, especially while reading or using the computer. Remembering to blink completely and often when doing these tasks can keep the eyes lubricated.
• Using a humidifier. As we enter the cold months and start turning the heating up, the air becomes drier and eyes may feel worse. In the summer, air conditioning can also cause a low-humidity environment. A humidifier can help replace some of the lost moisture.
• Using oral omega-3 fatty acids to improve tear quality.
If symptoms persist, a good eye examination is important to determine the best course of action. Some treatment options for patients with dry eye include over-the-counter artificial tears (preservative-free for use more than four times a day), prescription medications to increase tear production, prescription medications to improve tear quality, and procedures aimed at keeping tears in the eye by closing the tear drain holes (called puncta).
Dry eye is a chronic disease, so maintenance therapy is necessary. Fortunately, there are many treatment options to get you on your way to healthy and comfortable eyes.
About Dr. Nanji
Dr. Nanji is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the OHSU Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon, where she specializes in corneal and external diseases, ocular surface oncology, Laser Vision Correction/LASIK, and cataract and intraocular lenses. Dr. Nanji completed her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After completing her ophthalmology residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Eye Institute, she was awarded fellowships in Cornea and in Ocular Surface Oncology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami, Miami, Florida.