You wake up after a long night of looking at a screen. Perhaps you were watching a movie on your computer or using a tablet for schoolwork. Whatever the case was, it is noticeably more difficult to open your eyes, and when you do, they feel irritated and puffy. Your eyes are dry.
Dry eyes, or in medical terms, keratoconjunctivitis sicca, is characterized by a stinging, burning, or scratching sensation in one’s eyes, sensitivity to light, eye redness, a sensation of having something in one’s eyes, difficulty wearing contact lenses, and difficulty driving at night. The Mayo Clinic defines it as a condition that “occurs when your tears aren’t able to provide adequate lubricant for your eyes.” Extreme cases can cause excruciating pain and even trouble sleeping at night. While one may experience dry eyes every now and then, chronic dry eyes, which according to Opthalmology Times, affects more than 16 million people in the United States, can be serious and an interruption to one’s everyday life.
There are a multitude of factors that cause and/or exacerbate one’s dry eyes. Some people are predisposed to it because of certain medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma. Medications like antidepressants, high blood pressure prescriptions, antihistamines, and hormone replacement therapy sometimes result in dry eyes as well. Vitamin deficiencies, especially a lack of vitamin A, which is a crucial factor for the health of one’s vision, contribute to the dryness of one’s eyes. Also, with one’s hormones changing with age, many over the age of 65 have dry eyes.
Concentrating on something that requires one’s visual attention such as reading or driving for a prolonged period of time can cause dry eyes too. Staring at a computer screen is especially harmful as not only does it strain one’s eyes, but it also averts blinking. Dry eyes ensue from insufficient blinking as it reduces the amount of moisture in one’s eyes. With COVID-19 forcing many activities online, including school, it is of the utmost importance to take regular breaks from screens. Six hours of looking at a screen from online school alone, countless minutes spent doing schoolwork on electronic devices, and extra time on phones, playing video games, and watching videos does not bode well for the health of one’s eyes. If you start to consistently experience symptoms of dry eyes, it is always a good idea to reduce screen time and consider how to manage your situation.
On a singular occasion, one can usually identify if they have dry eyes. When the problem persists, however, it is recommended to receive a comprehensive eye exam where the overall health of one’s eyes can be determined. During this evaluation, the eyelid, external eye, and protective outer layer, or cornea, are checked. Other tests, such as applying dyed eye drops that show the surface condition of one’s eyes and the Schirmer test, may be conducted. The latter proves whether or not a person’s eyes make enough tears to keep them moist by placing a piece of filter paper on the inside of the lower eyelids and then studying how wet said papers are after five minutes. Based on the results of these tests, a treatment plan can then be constructed.
Though there is no definite cure for dry eyes, many effective treatments are available. Over-the-counter eye drops and warm compresses are often used to alleviate symptoms. Some receive more specialized treatments like specific contact lenses, steroid eye drops, medication, or intense pulsed light, which is a method of releasing hardened oils in the eyelids. To preserve one’s tears, some even undergo punctal occlusion, a relatively new medical procedure. This surgery consists of having a small device called a punctal plug inserted into the tear drainage channels, or puncta, of the eyes, which temporarily or permanently close off this canal.
Lifestyle changes such as taking breaks from looking at a screen, blinking regularly, and washing one’s face before bed are equally important. These practices can help reduce the optic inflammation and tear evaporation that fuel dry eyes.
Having chronic dry eyes is a difficult condition to live with and can be terribly inconspicuous. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this affliction, and advancements in treatments show great promise for the future of managing dry eyes.