During a patient’s eye exam, Dr. John Waters always asks two questions. The first is “How’s your vision?” and the second is “How do your eyes feel?” The second question is equally important as the first, because sometimes eyes feel itchy, scratchy, dry, tired or heavy.
Dryness is one of the most common eye-related issues, especially for people living in a cold-weather climate like Michigan. During the fall and winter months, Dr. Waters says he sees an increase in complaints of dry eyes. “As soon as people turn on their furnaces during colder weather, I know I’ll see more patients complaining that their eyes feel dry or sticky,” he says.
Dry eyes are one of the most common eye-related issues, especially for people living in a cold-weather climate like Michigan.
The eyes need tears to keep the cornea (front of the eye) lubricated, comfortable and to keep vision clear. Dry eyes result when the eyes don’t produce enough tears or don’t produce the right type of tears. This can cause blurry vision and make it difficult to read or use a computer for extended periods.
The delicate tear film covering the outside of the eye acts as a protective shield and is made of three layers. The outer layer is oily and reduces evaporation of the tears. The middle layer is watery and cleanses the eye, such as when crying. The inner layer is made of mucus and allows the tears to stay on the surface of the eye.
Ironically, people with dry eyes will often complain of excess tears running down their cheeks, which may seem like the opposite of dry eyes. In response to the dry eye irritation, these reflex tears are produced in abundance and pool in the eyes or run down the cheeks. These tears don’t actually help dry eyes because they are watery and not the oily, lubricating type of tears.
Causes of dry eyes include:
- long-term contact lens wear
- environmental pollution and irritants
- sun and wind
- lack of humidity
- poor eyelid function
- auto-immune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogren’s, Thyroid and Lupus
Symptoms of dry eyes include:
- blurry vision
- stinging, burning feeling
- scratchy, gritty feeling
- redness and irritation
- excess tearing
- light sensitivity
During an exam, Dr. Waters checks the cornea for dry spots and determines how healthy the tear film is. Depending on the cause and severity of the dryness, he has a variety of treatments. One of the easiest types of treatment is using over-the-counter, preservative-free lubricating drops (offered in individual vials). Eye drops in bottles usually contain preservatives, which can make dry eyes worse over time. Other treatments include ointment for nighttime use, Omega 3 vitamins to help keep the tear film healthy, and punctal plugs to help tears stay on the surface of the eye. For more advanced stages of dry eyes, prescription drops like Restasis® and Xiidra® can help. In addition, it’s always a good idea to use a humidifier whenever the furnace is on and to avoid fans blowing at the face.
“I’ve had dry eyes for years, so I understand how people can suffer with this condition,” Dr. Waters says. “Being a runner and a cyclist, I’m always out in the wind and elements, so using my lubricating drops and taking my Omega 3s help keep my symptoms under control.”
Rather than thinking dry eyes are just part of life, Dr. Waters encourages people to get an eye exam and start treatment to improve their quality of life.