What is Dry Eye Syndrome?

by Sarah Markel Health Writer

Many people who live with dry eye syndrome say they feel as if they have sand in their eyes. Others report a gritty, burning sensation that won’t go away.

“Basically, dry eye is an insufficient quantity and or quality of tears on the surface of the eye,” says Robert Latkany, M.D., a New York-based dry eye specialist and the author of The Dry Eye Remedy. “Sometimes it’s mild; sometimes it’s chronic, and in those cases it can be a very debilitating condition.”

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, 4.91 million Americans live with chronic dry eye. But researchers say that number is vastly underreported. Some research suggests that as many as 30 million Americans are affected. “It’s very common across the board,” says Dr. Latkany.

Older adults, people who have had previous eye surgeries and people living with chronic health conditions such as autoimmune disease and diabetes are particularly at risk.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, think of tears as the window cleaning fluid. Tears are made up of oil, water and mucus, and are produced by several glands in and around the eyelids. In healthy eyes, the action of blinking spreads tears across the surface of the cornea, keeping the eye smooth, clean and comfortable.

If there are too few tears, which can happen as we age or as a side effect of various health conditions and certain medicines, the eye will start to feel dry and gritty. Or, if the glands that produce the tears (meibomian glands) fail to work correctly, the tears will lack the correct chemical balance to protect and nourish the surface of the eye.

Left untreated, dry eye can lead to blurred vision, eye pain and even blindness. Even mild cases can affect your quality of life: patients with dry eye are significantly more likely to report trouble reading, carrying out professional work, using a computer, driving and watching TV.

While there is no cure for dry eye, treatment options do exist. These include a dizzying array of artificial tears, surgical procedures, medical devices and lifestyle changes. Most people will find relief with some combination of these. The trick is figuring out which treatments work for each patient.

“There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for dry eye,” says Dr. Latkany, who cautions people with chronic dry eye to be wary of products that only address the symptoms without treating the underlying cause. “It’s a very complex disease that requires an expert to determine where it is stemming from,” he says. “Once you know the cause, that will guide you on how you should treat it and manage it.”

Sarah Markel
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Markel

Sarah is an experienced medical journalist who covered psoriasis and chronic dry eye for HealthCentral.