Tribune Print Share Text

Don’t suffer with dry eyes

Created date

October 26th, 2010

Dry eye syndrome can occur at any age, but it is more common in older adults. Nearly five million Americans 50 years of age and older have dry eyes. Tears, made by the lacrimal gland, are necessary for overall eye health and clear vision. Tears keep the surface of the eye moist and wash away dust and debris. They also help protect the eye from bacterial and other types of infections. Having dry eye can make it more difficult to perform some activities, such as using a computer or reading, and it can decrease your tolerance for dry environments, such as the air inside an airplane.

Many causes

Typically, the tear glands don t produce as many tears as you age, says Raina Patel, M.D. Or your tears are not of the correct consistency and evaporate too quickly. Tears may not be as well dispersed because of changes in eyelid shape or tone, says James Heltzer, M.D., clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Many seniors also take medications that contribute to dry eye such as antihistamines, certain blood pressure medications, hormone replacements, or antidepressants. Tears are made of a mucin [lubricant] layer, a water layer, and an oil layer. Any health condition that alters any of these components can result in dry eye, he adds. Some health conditions that affect the eyes are thyroid disease, skin disease on or around the eyelids, diseases of the eye glands, allergies, and rheumatoid arthritis, Patel says. Dry eyes are also a hallmark symptom of Sj gren s syndrome, a chronic [ongoing] condition in which a person s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands. In addition, excessive or insufficient dosages of certain vitamins can contribute to dry eye, particularly vitamin A deficiency, Heltzer says. Dry eye can also develop after the refractive surgery known as LASIK, or from long-term contact lens use.

Effective treatment options

Depending on the cause, your doctor may use various approaches to relieve your dry eye symptoms. If an underlying disease is the cause, then it needs to be treated. If dry eye results from taking a medication, your doctor may recommend changing to a medication that does not cause the dry eye side effect, Patel says. Medications to treat dry eye includecyclosporine (Restasis), an anti-inflammatory medication. It decreases corneal damage, increases basic tear production, and reduces symptoms of dry eye. It may, however, take three to six months of twice-a-day dosages for it to work. Some studies show positive results from taking flaxseed oil or fish oil supplements, Heltzer adds. Some of these are considered a medical food and available by prescription only. Medical foods are specially-formulated supplements or food items that are intended for the treatment of a health condition. Also available by prescription are inserts that produce tears all day. Tell your primary doctor about any new medications or supplements that are prescribed by your eye doctor. Another option is to plug the drainage holes where tears drain from the eye into the nose. Lacrimal plugs, also called punctal plugs, can be inserted painlessly by an eye care professional. Occasionally, a simple surgery called punctal cautery is recommended to permanently close the drainage holes. However, this procedure is less commonly performed because there are so many effective punctal plugs available, Heltzer says.

More ways to feel better

Most people with dry eye syndrome use over-the-counter artificial tears, gels, and ointments. Avoid excessive use of anti-redness drops or artificial tears with preservatives these can exacerbate symptoms. Various types of artificial tears can work differently, so if one doesn t work, try another, Heltzer says. Wearing glasses or sunglasses that fit close to the face (wrap-around shades) or that have side shields can help slow tear evaporation. Indoors, an air cleaner to filter dust and other particles may help. A humidifier may also provide some relief. Stay away from dry conditions and allow your eyes to rest when performing activities that require you to use your eyes for long periods of time. Most eye care professionals can treat dry eye symptoms; some even specialize in dry eye syndrome. Dry eye syndrome, if not treated, can cause injury to the eye. While it is generally not preventable, you can prevent it from getting worse, Heltzer says. Early detection and treatment are essential. Seniors should see an eye doctor regularly whether or not they have dry eye syndrome, Heltzer adds. Exams in which your pupils are dilated are especially important, because sometimes small changes in the eye can signal the presence of a disease like high blood pressure or diabetes even before you have any other symptoms.

Symptoms of dry eye

If symptoms of dry eye persist, see your doctor or an eye care professional.
  • stinging or burning
  • pain and redness
  • a sandy or gritty feeling as if something is in your eye
  • episodes of excess tears following very dry eye periods
  • a stringy discharge
  • episodes of blurred vision
  • heavy eyelids
  • inability to cry tears when emotionally stressed
  • uncomfortable contact lenses
  • decreased tolerance of reading, working on the computer, or any activity requiring sustained visual attention
  • eye fatigue

Senior eye care at little to no cost

Seniors EyeCare is a program through EyeCare America that provides free eye exams and up to one year of care to U.S. citizens and legal residents through volunteer ophthalmologists frequently at little or no out-of-pocket cost to those who qualify. Go towww.eyecareamerica.orgor call 1-800-222-EYES (3937).