Dry eye is a chronic condition affecting about one third of Australian adults and half of those aged over 50. Females are at greater risk of developing the condition.
Normally, a film of tears covers the surface of the eye to keep it moist, and meibomian glands in the eyelids secrete oils to slow evaporation of these tears. Dry eye results if there is an insufficient supply of tears or if the tears evaporate too quickly.
Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD), where the glands don’t function properly either due to blockage or oil deficiency, is a leading cause of dry eye.
Sufferers have difficulty reading, using a computer, watching TV and driving. In its most severe form, dry eye can be accompanied by inflammation of the eye surface, sleep disturbances and depression. The detrimental effects (physical, emotional, financial) can be quite significant. If left untreated, some people may develop corneal ulcers, corneal scars and, rarely, even loss of vision.
Dry eye is commonly confused with other conditions, in particular allergies. It can be tricky to diagnose because symptoms vary, are subjective and can be described in many different ways (e.g. ‘feels gritty’ vs ‘feels like something in my eye’).
The condition can’t be cured, but available treatments aim to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. The earlier dry eye is detected and treatment started, the better.
Severe, chronic dry eye can become a major financial burden, particularly with the number of products available that claim to treat dry eye and the complex nature of the underlying disease.
Unfortunately, there is no single treatment that works for everyone. It is best to see an ophthalmologist who specialises in this area. He/she will perform a comprehensive set of diagnostic tests, recommend the most appropriate treatment for your situation and monitor your condition.
Ophthalmologists use a combination of tests to diagnose dry eye, including:
It’s important to understand that dry eye can’t be cured – ongoing treatment is required. Early diagnosis and treatment may prevent disease progression.
Inflammation of the surface of the eye is commonly associated with dry eye. Untreated cases can result in pain, corneal ulcers, corneal scars and potentially, though rarely, loss of vision.
Treatment may include the following measures to relieve symptoms and prevent complications:
These include intense pulsed light and thermal pulsation. However, their effectiveness is yet to be determined. The effect of hormone replacement and anti-ageing therapies on meibomian glands is also being researched, in the hope of discovering new treatments.