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Dry, Irritated Eyes: Causes & Treatment Options

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Over 25 million Americans suffer from dry, irritated eyes, making it the number-one complaint seen by eye doctors. Our Hamilton, New Jersey practice is no different. Symptom severity can vary from a mild intermittent nuisance to severe pain and loss of vision. Although the condition cannot be cured, advances in treatment options allow most symptoms to be brought under control, restoring comfort and preserving vision. If left untreated, dry eye progresses over time.

How Dry Eye Happens

The tear film is a complex solution made up of mucous, salt water and oil. It functions to protect the surface of the eye, keeping it moist and lubricated. This complex fluid washes away allergens, infectious bacteria, and viruses. This plays into the inner workings of the eye.

Much like a recipe, poor quality ingredients (mucous, salt water, and oil) together with improper proportions produces a poor tear film incapable of protecting the eye. The corneal surface begins to break down, causing eye redness and irritation. Environmental stressors such as heat, low humidity, wind, and allergens exacerbate the symptoms of dry eye.

Dry eye is a low-grade inflammation of the surface of the eye. A treatment plan must be tailored to the individual based on the intensity of the symptoms and findings of the eye exam.

The Prevailing Treatment Methods

At our Princeton-area ophthalmology practice, we have several approaches for treating dry eye. In each case, the goal of treatment is to increase the volume and quality of the tears.

  • Artificial tears and ointments: These provide the first line of defense. They do not alter the course of the dry eye itself, but they do provide temporary relief by coating the corneal surface.
  • Eyelid hygiene: Keeping the eyelids clean decreases the bacteria that normally inhabit the eyelids. These bacteria release toxins that irritate the eye. Baby shampoo, antiseptic wipes, or solutions will decrease the bacterial load on the eyelid and improve symptoms. Antibiotic drops may sometimes be added to decrease the number of bacteria on the eyelid skin.
  • Blocking the tear ducts: The tear ducts (one for each eyelid) drain away the tears. Blocking them keeps the tears in contact with the eye longer and slows the egress of tears, keeping the eye more moist.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Because the underlying cause of dry eye is inflammation, medications for inflammation can improve signs and symptoms of dry eye. Steroid drops provide rapid relief of symptoms, but they can only be used for short periods due to a possibility of causing glaucoma or cataracts. For long-term treatment, anti-inflammatory drops RESTASIS® and Xiidra® are now available.

Dry eye is an exceedingly common condition that can manifest as only a minor nuisance — but in the most serious cases, it may lead to severe visual loss. That’s why we recommend coming in for a consultation if you are experiencing symptoms. There is currently no cure for dry eyes, but treatments can improve comfort and prevent visual loss.

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