Your eyes rely on a steady production of tears to keep them moist and protected. Occasional cases of eye dryness caused by a long airplane trip or too many hours staring at a computer screen can be irritating, but it’s typically not a cause for concern.
Chronic dry eye, on the other hand, may indicate a medical problem. Here, Dr. Sophia Barnes from Vision Corner in Houston, Texas, takes a closer look at chronic dry eye, its causes, and its potential complications.
Why tears are important
To understand why chronic dry eye is a problem, it’s important to understand the role your tears play in your eye health. Every time you blink, your eyelids distribute a layer of tears over the surface of your corneas to:
- Flush away debris and foreign particles
- Reduce the risk of infection
- Nourish eye tissue
- Help focus light entering your eyes
The tears that spread across your eyes consist of three different layers: an oily outer layer, a watery middle layer, and an inner mucus layer that helps them stick to your eye’s surface. Any disruption in your tear production leaves your eyes vulnerable to damage.
Causes of chronic dry eye
There are two main reasons you may end up with chronic dry eye: poor quantity and poor quality.
Not enough tears
Ideally, the glands around your eyes produce a steady flow of tears to keep your corneas covered, but certain conditions can interfere with tear production. As you age, your body’s systems naturally slow down, and this includes your tear-producing glands.
Hormonal changes can also decrease tear production, so pregnancy and menopause may trigger dry eyes. Certain medications, including antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, and decongestants, may lead to drier eyes, too.
Poor quality tears
You may produce enough tears, but the quality may be substandard. If you’re lacking any of the three layers in tears, you may end up with chronic dry eye despite the appearance of adequate tear production.
For example, if you don’t have enough of the smoother outer oily layer, your tears may evaporate too quickly. Certain medical conditions can make you more susceptible to developing chronic dry eye, such as diabetes and thyroid problems, eye infections, and eyelids that are turned inward or outward.
Long-term effects of chronic dry eye
If you ignore your chronic dry eye condition, you put your eyes and your vision at risk. Here are some of the long-term problems you may encounter.
If you don’t produce enough tears to flush away dust and debris from your eyes regularly, errant specks can scratch your cornea and open the door for bacteria and infection. Infections on your cornea often develop into small wounds called corneal ulcers, which require antibiotic eye drops to combat the inflammation.
If you don’t treat corneal ulcers, you may develop scar tissue that can cause reduced vision or blindness.
In addition to corneal infection, the conjunctiva in your eyes — the clear layer that lines the underside of your eyelids and covers the whites of your eyes — may become inflamed if you have chronic dry eye.
When this mucus layer becomes inflamed, it’s called conjunctivitis. Pink eye, which is conjunctivitis caused by a bacterial infection, is a different condition with similar symptoms. Conjunctivitis causes red, gritty, painful eyes and requires medical treatment.
Studies show there’s a link between chronic dry eyes and migraines. While the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t yet clear, what is known is that if you have chronic migraines, you’re almost twice as likely as others to have chronic dry eye as well.
Because tears help focus the light that enters your eyes, lack of tears can lead to blurry vision. At first, you may chalk this up to tired eyes or needing a new eyeglass prescription. But dry eyes can’t be fixed with a pair of glasses.
You may have difficulty reading, working at a computer, or driving a car. You may even begin to have trouble keeping your eyes open. Many of our patients with dry eyes complain of extreme light sensitivity that forces them to squint even in moderate light.
Don’t risk these chronic dry eye complications. Dr. Barnes can diagnose your chronic dry eyes and prescribe medicated drops to resolve the problem. If your eyes are constantly dry, gritty, and red, schedule an appointment with Dr. Barnes at Vision Corner today. Call us at 713-623-2000, or use our online appointment request tool.