Irritated, sore, burning, scratchy, gritty, watery? No, not an eye infection (though these are also symptoms of infection) – just dry eyes! Dry eye disease, or dry eye syndrome, affects up to 50 million Americans, so if your eyes feel a little like the Mojave Desert, you’re in good company. In recent years, there’s been a boom of interest in dry eye disease, and subsequently, a whole lot of new treatment options have emerged. While some of these can cost you thousands of dollars in treatment fees, for mild or temporary episodes of dry eye flare-ups, some simple home remedies might just do the trick.
What is Dry Eye Disease?
Why call it a disease? Dry eyes are just eyes that feel dry, right? A little grittiness in the eyes while you’ve got a fan blowing in your face is one thing, but dry eye disease is much more than that. So much more that, in fact, there are whole research initiatives dedicated to it, such as the Dry Eye Workshops by the Tear Film & Ocular Surface Society.
Dry eye disease is a condition involving a deficient tear film. The tear film is a microscopic layer of tears that covers the front surface of the eye. In addition to being important for comfort, the tear film also aids clear vision and contains a multitude of compounds that support the health of the cornea and conjunctiva, including antimicrobial molecules. In dry eye disease, the tear film is unstable or reduced, leading to an exposed eye surface, inflammation, and characteristic symptoms.
Dry eye syndrome has far-reaching consequences. It’s estimated that it costs the USA economy over $55.4 billion every year; globally, treatment for dry eye is anticipated to cost over $6.6 billion by the year 2027.
Beyond treatment costs, the persistent symptoms of dry eye disease can, for some people, be debilitating. This results in lost work productivity (costing the US economy additional dollars) and has also been demonstrated to impact negatively on quality of life.
Despite being such a prevalent condition, many people don’t even realize they actually have a condition at all. Instead, dry, sore eyes are dismissed as, well, just dry sore eyes, and the brave individual simply soldiers on. However, dry eye disease is a spectrum of symptoms, ranging from a mild irritation that can be easily ignored, to severe pain and disabling blurry vision. Some episodes of dry eye are short-lived while others can be persistent and chronic.
Common symptoms of dry eye disease include:
- A dry, gritty, burning, stinging, or irritated sensation of the eye
- The sensation of a particle stuck in the eye
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Blurred and fluctuating vision
- Red eyes
- Unusually tired or fatigued eyes
- Discomfort in contact lenses
- Watery eyes
Treatment for dry eyes can range from doing nothing at all to investing in a course of more intense or invasive treatments such as punctal plugs, intense pulsed light therapy, or prescription eye drops formulated from your own blood products. It’s important to note that there is currently no cure for dry eye – instead, treatment is aimed at improving symptoms and avoiding the complications of severe dry eye.
If you’re not ready to instill blood serum drops into your eyes (and not many people are), fortunately, there are several steps you can take to manage your dry eyes in the comfort of your own home (and without dishing out wads of cash).
Home Remedies for Dry Eye
Mild to moderate cases of dry eye can be managed with some simple actions. It’s generally safe to try these by yourself without consulting with an eye doctor first, however, if you have other eye conditions or a complicated medical history, it would be wise to be under the care of an eye doctor for a holistic approach.
If your environment is dry, guess what? It could be making your eyes dry, too! While dry environments won’t bother everyone, if your eyes are already on the dry side or you’re predisposed to dry eye disease, certain surroundings can exacerbate your symptoms. This can include airplane cabins, high altitudes, and deserts.
Even if the Mojave is not a location you visit often, air conditioning in offices, homes, and the car can dry out those eyes. Consider turning down the force of the fan, directing vents away from your face, or adding a humidifier to the room.
Use lubricating eye drops.
If you’ve ever walked down the health aisle at Walmart, the range of lubricating eye drops can be fairly overwhelming. Different individuals will prefer different formulations so there’s not one particular brand that can be recommended over all others. However, there are a few general principles to consider when choosing a lubricating drop.
- Avoid drops marketed for “red eyes”. Your dry eyes might also be an unsightly shade of red, but eye drops targeting redness tend to contain additional chemicals (vasoconstrictors) to whiten the eyes. The problem with this is that overuse of vasoconstrictors can cause a dependency; you may find yourself in a vicious cycle of needing to use these drops multiple times a day to keep your eyes white.
- Be mindful of preservatives. Preservatives are generally okay, provided you don’t have a known sensitivity. However, if you find yourself needing to use the eye drops very frequently throughout the day, such as every couple of hours, consider using a non-preserved drop instead. Loading preservatives into the eye can potentially cause further irritation.
- If a liquid eye drop is not enough, look for a gel or ointment. Lubricating eye gels and ointments are thicker, providing longer-lasting protection and lubrication on the eye. The downside is that, being so viscous, they will also interfere with your vision for longer than a liquid drop. Lubricating ointments are typically recommended just before you go to bed for the day as they make your vision pretty blurry.
Lubricating drops and artificial tears are not medications and do not absorb into the bloodstream, making them safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Warm compresses and lid massage.
Applying heat and gentle massage to your eyelids can help to unclog blocked oil glands contributing to a deficient tear film. You can use a clean cloth in warm water (being careful not to burn your face), placed over your closed eyelids for 10 minutes. During this time, you’ll probably need to reheat the cloth to keep it warm enough. The heat helps to soften any blockages of oils in the eyelid glands (known as the meibomian glands). After this, using your clean fingers, massage the edge of the lower eyelid in an upwards direction, and the upper eyelid in a downwards direction, to squeeze out those softened oils. The best results come after persisting with this a couple of times a day for a few weeks.
Debris and other undesirables around the eyelashes can contribute to irritation and dryness during dry eye disease. Even if you don’t spend your days in a dry, dusty, dirty environment (such as the Mojave), many people accumulate a degree of debris around their eyelashes. This is often made up of dead skin flakes, oils from the skin, and bacteria. Regularly using a clean cloth with diluted baby shampoo or a specially formulated eyelid cleanser can help to get rid of these irritants.
The current conventional advice involves recommending certain nutrients and vitamins to promote a healthy eye surface and reduce dry eye symptoms. However, not all research has found these dietary recommendations to be useful (and in fact, some studies have found that reaching recommended dietary intakes of some of these nutrients may be linked with an increased risk of dry eye disease).
Some eye doctors may suggest ensuring your diet is not deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E when it comes to treating dry eye. These vitamins and nutrients contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which, in theory, should assist in managing dry eye disease and protecting the eye’s surface.
Before taking nutritional supplements or going overboard with the salmon or carrots, discuss the benefits with your doctor, as excess intake can have detrimental side effects.
More severe or stubborn cases of dry eye can still benefit from these easy home remedies. However, it’s likely you’ll need additional therapy under the guidance of an eye doctor to properly manage your symptoms. Either way, dry eyes are something you don’t need to put up with.
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