Fran Fitzsimmons knows more than she ever wanted to know about chronic dry eye.
The New York resident was 15 when she first noticed the problem, although she wasn’t sure what it was.
“In high school, people noticed my eyes were red. I thought it was from my contact lenses. That made it worse,” she recalled. “Going to the mall, particularly wearing contact lenses, was horrible. It was a nightmare — the closed spaces, and poor air circulation.”
Fitzsimmons was in her 30s before she was properly diagnosed.
“As a teen I was self-conscious,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to adjust my life to it.”
Dry Eye Can Have Major Consequences
Fitzsimmons is not alone.
For many people, July represents barbecues and the beach. But it also has a serious side. It is Chronic Dry Eye Disease Awareness Month.
What sounds like a minor ailment can have serious consequences if ignored. Symptoms include eye dryness and overall eye discomfort, stinging, burning, a gritty feeling, and episodes of blurred vision.
Studies show that close to 8 percent of women age 50 or older in the United States and about 4 percent of men in that same group experience symptoms of chronic dry eye.
And those numbers are only going to go up, according to Dr. Marguerite McDonald, FACS, of Ophthalmic Consultants, Long Island, New York, and a professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
Dry eye is a progressive disease, McDonald explained.
“It goes up with time,” she noted. “Computers, video games, laser surgery, the climate, all those things affect the eyes.”
Other factors include air conditioning and forced air heating. For people under age 50 who use contact lenses to correct vision, rates of chronic dry eye are similar to that of older people.
Medications useful in treating other conditions appear to have an adverse effect on the eyes. Antihistamines, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants have all been associated with dry eye in the overall population.
Laser Surgery, Posture Can Make Dry Eyes Worse
Lasik surgery, which has improved vision for many people, is also a risk factor, McDonald said. She cited a survey of nearly 800 people who had either the PRK or LASIK procedure and found that nearly half of these patients reported occasional eye dryness more than three months later.
Even posture plays a role.
“Most people look up at a computer screen, and that exposes more of the ocular surface,” McDonald said. “When that surface becomes irritated or damaged, it activates an inflammatory response.”
Where you live makes a difference, too. Dry and warm climates, in particular, are known to be more damaging to the eyes than wet and cool ones.
All of these factors have changed the composition of patients who seek treatment.
“Now it’s not just menopausal women,” said McDonald. “We see young men in increasing numbers.”
There is no cure for chronic dry eye, but there is treatment, McDonald said, adding there are different treatments for different stages.
In a mild case, the occasional use of artificial tears might be sufficient to relieve symptoms. There are stronger preservative-free tears dispensed by prescription for more advanced stages. There’s also an ointment that can be used at night.
“This is a disease that can be controlled, not cured,” McDonald said.
Fitzsimmons takes breaks when working at the computer, wears her glasses at home, and tries to get more sleep.
Ignoring the condition is not a valid option, according to McDonald.
“It’s progressive,” she repeated. “Going blind is very rare, but it’s a huge quality of life issue. There’s burning and stinging; your eyes are red and bleary. That can impact your professional and personal life in many ways.
“You can’t go to your grandson’s game because of the wind, you can’t wear contacts, and you’re squinting a lot, which makes you look angry. It really interferes with your social life.”