Do you ever notice a scratchy feeling in your eyes or your vision getting blurry while watching a movie in a theater? Ever find yourself rubbing your eyes or struggling to keep contact lenses in place?
If so, you may be suffering from dry eye disease, or, in medical terminology, keratoconjunctivitis sicca.
It’s no longer only a disease for people over 50, partly because research has raised awareness about it, resulting in new and more sophisticated tests and questionnaires that optometrists use to screen for it.
An estimated 30 million Americans, or about 10 percent of the U.S. population, suffer with dry eye disease, according to the American Journal of Ophthalmology.
Optometrists are finding that young people, and even children, now suffer from dry eye disease, largely because more are wearing contact lenses and are spending so many hours staring at a computer screen or hand-held device — both circumstances that can increase the risk of developing the problem.
Jose Duran found out he had dry eye symptoms when he started wearing contact lenses as a teenager and immediately had trouble getting them to stay in the correct position.
“Getting (the contact lenses) in has always been a process,” said the 28-year-old Lake View resident.
“When I put in contacts in the morning, I sometimes will have trouble getting it into place, so I have to move it with my finger.”
Duran said other tell-tale signs include getting a bit blurry-eyed when he sits in harsh fluorescent lighting and feeling a burning sensation in his eyes after sitting in front of a bright computer screen or a movie screen in a darkened room.
“At first, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just tired. I think it’s the brightness and the contrast in lighting,’” he said.
After an optometrist diagnosed the basis of his condition — Duran’s tear quality fails to keep his eyes well-lubricated — he started regularly using over-the-counter eye drops to keep his eyes moistened.
But Duran said it’s a condition he has come to deal with.
“I saw a movie a few days ago, and I realized how often I had to close my eyes a few seconds so they won’t feel like they’re drying out,” he said.
One of the underlying causes is a considerable reduction in how often we blink our eyes, said Dr. Mark Jacquot, vice president and clinical director for Luxottica, the Milan, Italy-based eye wear manufacturer and owner of LensCrafters, Pearle Vision and Target Optical stores.
When we stare at screens — whether those screens are on smartphones, laptops or desktop computers — we blink less often, experts say. Healthy people blink 10 to 15 times each minute, compared with those staring at a computer screen, whose rate plunges by 60 percent, according to research published in the journal Survey of Ophthalmology.
Blinking matters because each blink renews tear film, a microscopic layer that protects and moisturizes the eyes.
The risk is also greater for cigarette smokers; women, particularly at menopause; people with conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or an autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s syndrome; and those on certain kinds of medications, including antihistamines, diuretics, anti-depressants, decongestants, hormone replacement therapy, and drugs that lower cholesterol.
“Dry eye disease has a simple name, but it’s a very complex condition,” said Dr. Dominick Opitz, an associate professor of optometry, senior director of ophthalmology services at the Illinois College of Optometry and a private practitioner at the Norwood Park Eye Center. “It’s a disease of the ocular surface caused by inflammation.”
The diagnosis of dry eye is often made through a regular eye exam. Special dyes are used to check tear evaporation and to evaluate any damage to the ocular surface from dry eye. The exam also checks blinking habits, tear gland function, eyelid function and severity of ocular surface inflammation.
Depending on the cause of dry eye, warm compresses are an inexpensive at-home treatment that may help symptoms associated with dry eye, Opitz said.
Proper diet and exercise may also help with symptoms, Opitz said. Ergonomic changes while working on a computer, such as positioning your screen so that you look down, can also help, he said.
To help reduce tear evaporation, wearing wraparound sunglasses when outdoors and avoiding air from blowing onto one’s face from the car’s air-conditioning vents help, too.
Other solutions can include FDA-approved anti-inflammatory eye drops like Restasis and Xiidra; over-the-counter lubricants such as Refresh or Thera-Tears, and eating healthy foods such as fish, walnuts, flaxseed, green leafy vegetables and Omega-3 rich fish oil supplements that contain DHA and EPA. The ideal dose of the supplement is usually 2,000 milligrams per day, Jacquot said.
When simple remedies fail to help, an eyecare provider may recommend over-the-counter natural tears, but Opitz cautions patients that commercially available natural or artificial tears treat the ocular surface differently.
The key is to first find out if you have the problem, Jacquot said.
“Most people know their eyes are uncomfortable but aren’t aware they have dry eye,” he said. “Often, people try to self-treat, but that can sometimes make matters worse. The eye-care aisle at a drugstore can be extremely confusing.”
Opitz urges anyone with dry eye symptoms to stop suffering and get their eyes checked.
“Dry eye gets worse,” he said. “It’s easier to treat in the early stages.”
TIPS FOR GOOD EYE HEALTH
— Get yearly eye exams
— Follow the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes you spend on the computer, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
— Remember to blink and stay cognizant of blinking, especially while reading or looking at a computer.
— Give your eyes a break from your contacts and wear your glasses.
— Ask your optometrist which over-the-counter eye lubricant is best for you. Preservative-free products include Refresh and Thera-Tears.