Dry, burning, itchy eyes are a common occurrence for many who work long hours or wear contact lenses, but if the problem seems to come out of nowhere and/or persists, you may be suffering from dry eye disease(DED).
Other symptoms of dry eye disease can include a pulling sensation on the eye, pressure behind the eye and the feeling that something, like an eyelash, is in the eye. These symptoms vary in intensity from mild and annoying, to more severe and painful. If left untreated, this can compromise vision and increase sensitivity to light.
Dry eyes are the result of either an underproduction of tears, or quick evaporation of tears from the surface of the eyes. DED is a complex condition and multiple factors can throw off the balance between tear production and evaporation.
A good way to understand DED is by using the analogy of a fish bowl. Imagine your eye is like the fishbowl and contained within your eye is the tear film (water) and cells (fish).
In order for fish to survive, their environment must be maintained for proper pH, temperature, water cleanliness etc. Similarly, cells of the eyes must be in an appropriate environment or they will become irritated. Things like a smoky, dry environment or extreme temperatures will affect the make-up of your tear film (water) which will consequently affect the cells of your eyes (fish). Additionally, if you were to leave the lid off of a fish bowl and leave it in the sun, the water would quickly evaporate. Focusing on something for long periods of time without blinking causes eye strain and this has the same effect by increasing evaporation of the tear film.
There is no need to cry over dry eyes! Some lifestyle treatment options include purposeful blinking and avoidance of smoky, hot, or dry environments. Many individuals also find symptom relief from artificial tears (i.e. eye drops). Perhaps the most important aspect of treatment is recognizing symptoms, determining potential sources of problems (e.g. the humidity is too low in your house) and acting on them.
Because aging slows down natural tear production, it was initially believed that DED affects mainly older populations. However increased use of computers (and similar hand held devices) and contact lenses suggests that younger populations are also afflicted with DED.
You may find that although you experience symptoms of dry eye, your eyes water. This is a normal response to dry eyes but will do little to alleviate symptoms. The body overloads the eyes with tears and as a result, the tears do not spend enough time on the surface of the eyes but rather spill down the cheeks.