Millions of Americans suffer from chronic dry eye disease, a condition in which the eye does not produce adequate quantity or quality of tears. While the condition occurs in both men and women, it is much more common in women. Over 3 million women in the United States alone — or 1 in 12 — over the age of 50 suffer from chronic dry eye. Risk factors for this condition include hormonal changes, autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, lupus and Sjögren’s (”SHOW-grins”) syndrome.
Excessive tearing may seem to be an unusual symptom for chronic dry eye syndrome but these irritant tears, produced as a reflex reaction to the syndrome, contain more water than normal tears, which have a balance of water, fat and mucus. The excess tears just run off the eyes and cannot lubricate them as healthy tears do.
What Causes Dry Eyes?
Chronic dry eye is most common in post-menopausal women because of the hormonal changes associated with aging. Testosterone plays a critical role in maintaining the tear-making lacrimal gland. As women grow older, their production of testosterone declines, making the lacrimal gland more susceptible to inflammation. If the lacrimal gland becomes inflamed, reduced tear production may result.
Any condition that damages the lacrimal gland can decrease tear production. Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic disease in which white blood cells attack the moisture-producing glands. The classic symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it is a systemic disease, affecting many of the body’s organs. It is one of the most prevalent autoimmune disorders. It is important to realize that environmental, occupational, and lifestyle factors, such as smoke, dry air, dust, the wearing of contact lenses for extended periods of time, and prolonged computer use, can all intensify the symptoms of chronic dry eye disease.
Dry eye syndrome is an ongoing condition that cannot be cured, but the accompanying dryness, scratching and burning can be managed. Ultraviolet (UV) blocking sunglasses can help reduce irritation from sun exposure and help shield your eyes from the effects of wind and blowing dust. Artificial tears can help lubricate chronically dry eyes but they do not help increase tear production. Avoid frequent use of products that whiten the eyes – they can actually make a dry eye problem worse. Adding a humidifier can help offset the drying effects of many heating and air conditioning systems.
New Prescription Therapy For Dry Eyes - Restasis®
In 2003, Allergan introduced a new FDA-approved eye drop called Restasis® that actually helps increase natural tear production, in patients with dry eye disease. The effect of Restasis® is not seen immediately, but after a period of regular use, many patients experience a significant improvement in natural tear production and a reduction in their symptoms.
Your eye doctor will normally prescribe Restasis® drops to be used once or twice per day. There can be some local irritation upon instillation but the drops are well tolerated by the majority of patients. Some patients may require the addition of lubricant eye drops along with their Restasis therapy but this becomes less necessary as the ability to produce natural tears increases. If your eye doctor determines that Restasis therapy is indicated, many major health insurance companies now provide coverage. Consult your particular carrier for the most up-to-date information.
A Word Of Caution - Severe dry-eye cases, if left untreated, can lead to scarring or even ulceration of the cornea and loss of vision. If you have persistently dry eyes, it is wise to seek the advice of your eye doctor. Never change or discontinue medications without checking with your doctor. If you are considering LASER vision correction, it is important that you first seek treatment for any dry eye symptoms.