Don't Ignore Dry Eyes

You might feel a sand-like grittiness in your eyes that can range from mild to severe. People describe the feeling as a lack of lubrication -- and that's exactly what it is. Your body isn't making enough tears, or the chemicals in your tears are out of balance. When this happens, you have dry eye.

Dry eye is a medical diagnosis that at times is not taken seriously, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). "Dry eye is not a minor annoyance. It can cause inflammation and even lead to blindness," says AAO spokesman Stephen C. Pflugfelder, M.D., who runs the ocular surface center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "It's a misconception that tears are made up of only water and salt. There are also hundreds of proteins, growth factors and other chemicals in our tears."

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, over 3 million women and over 1 million men suffer from dry eye syndrome, and this generally increases with age.

Risk rises with age

Changes in your immune response and falling hormone production as you age can lead to dry eye.

Some medications can cause or worsen dry eye. Key culprits:

  • Diuretics

  • Antihistamines

  • Some antidepressants

  • Some medications for overactive bladder

  • Some antinausea and motion sickness medications

"If you experience dry eye and you're on medication, talk with your doctor to see if a change can be made," says Dr. Pflugfelder.

Other causes

Some autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), can cause dry eye.

The first line of defense against dry eye is to limit or avoid things that cause symptoms. That includes dry climates. Humidity levels of about 45 percent or more are best for your eyes. Other factors include forced air (such as from a car vent), dusty settings, smoke and computer screens set so high that they force your eyes to open wider.

Artificial tears you can buy over the counter can help, says Dr. Pflugfelder. Look for products that are just like your own tears, not eye drops sold for allergies or redness.

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