There are several eye concerns linked to diabetes, one of which is dry eyes.
This might sound like a minor inconvenience, but chronic dry eyes, also known as dry eye syndrome or dry eye disease, can lead to permanent eye damage and vision loss if it’s not treated.
This article will look at the connection between dry eyes and diabetes, the symptoms, treatment, and what you can do to take care of dry eye issues.
When your blood sugar is high, it can cause nerve damage in your eyes which, in turn, can lead to decreased tear production.
Additionally, high blood sugar can cause inflammation throughout your body. This inflammation makes it harder for your lacrimal glands — the glands in your eyes that produce tears — to function.
Over time, if left untreated, dry eye may lead to:
- eye pain
- corneal scarring
- vision loss
Fortunately, managing your blood sugar and keeping it within a healthy range can lower your risk of dry eye syndrome.
Eye drops and other treatments can also help relieve dry eye symptoms and prevent complications while you work with a healthcare professional to manage your diabetes.
Your eyes produce tears constantly throughout the day. Dry eye happens when your eyes do not have the tears they need to stay moisturized and healthy.
Your eyes cannot function properly without healthy tear production. When your eyes do not produce enough tears, it can cause eye irritation and a variety of other eye symptoms, such as:
- blurry vision
- stinging or burning
- a gritty sensation
- trouble reading
- trouble wearing contact lenses
- sensitivity to wind or sun
Sometimes, dry eye can be a temporary condition that goes away on its own. This can be the case when dry eye syndrome is not caused by diabetes. For instance, your eyes may be dry because you spent time in a very dry or windy environment, or because you wore your contact lenses for too long.
However, dry eyes caused by diabetes — or another underlying health issue — will need to be addressed by a medical professional.
It’s a good idea to see a healthcare professional if you experience dry eye symptoms that do not clear up after a couple of days.
The treatment for dry eyes will depend on how severe your symptoms are and on your overall diabetes management plan.
Many people with dry eyes caused by diabetes find that managing their blood sugar levels can help resolve dry eye symptoms.
Your healthcare professional might recommend that you use artificial tears while you work to get your blood sugar levels to a well-managed place. They might also prescribe eye drops or advise you to purchase a specific over-the-counter product that can help lubricate your eyes.
Other treatment options for dry eye syndrome might include:
- Antibiotics. Antibiotics can reduce the inflammation in your eyelids and help your eyes produce more tears. Your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics or antibiotic eye drops.
- Eye drops. Eye drops containing the immune-suppressing medication cyclosporine (Restasis) can also help manage inflammation.
- Corticosteroids. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroid eye drops if you have severe eye inflammation. You’ll only use these eye drops for a short time.
- Tear stimulating medications. These medications can help your eyes produce more tears. They’re available in different forms, including eye drops and gels, as well as tablets that you take orally.
- Closing or plugging your tear ducts. Your tear ducts can be closed off with tiny removable collagen or silicone plugs to help keep tears in your eyes for longer. Your tear ducts can also be plugged using heat if a more permanent solution is needed. These surgical treatments are usually only an option if all other types of treatment fail to help ease dry eye symptoms.
If you’re waiting to see a doctor for your dry eye condition, there are some steps you can take on your own to help ease your dry eye symptoms. For instance, you may want to:
- use over-the-counter artificial tears several times a day
- use a humidifier to help moisten the indoor air
- take a break from computer, phone, tablet, or TV screens
- try a warm compress on your eyes for soothing relief
- drink plenty of water — at least 8 glasses a day
- wash your eyelids with gentle baby shampoo
- stay away from smoke
- wear wraparound sunglasses if you’re in dry or windy environments
High blood sugar levels can affect your eyes and cause damage to your vision. Besides dry eye, diabetes can lead to several different other eye issues, such as:
- Diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy happens when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in your retina. It can lead to vision loss and blindness.
- Diabetic macular edema (DME). DME causes blurry vision. It occurs when the blood vessels in a part of the retina — known as the macula — leak and cause swelling.
- Cataracts. Cataracts are caused by proteins that clump together over the lens of your eye, resulting in blurry, cloudy vision.
- Glaucoma. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve in your eye. It starts slowly, usually causing vision loss in your periphery vision. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness over time.
Diabetes is a common cause of dry eye, but it’s not the only possible cause. There are several reasons your eyes might be dry.
Other common causes of dry eye symptoms include:
- overuse of computer, TV, or phone screens
- living in a dry, windy, or smoky environment
- wearing contact lens, especially if you wear them for longer than you should
- having corrective vision surgery
- some topical eye medications
- hormonal changes
- autoimmune conditions, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and some thyroid conditions
- certain prescription medications including antacids, antidepressants and anxiety medications, antihistamines and some allergy medications, and blood pressure medications
High blood sugar can make it hard for your eyes to produce enough tears. This can lead to chronic dry eye if you have either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
The best way to resolve dry eye caused by diabetes is to work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that keeps your blood sugar levels well managed. Artificial tears and prescription eye drops can help relieve symptoms while you work with your healthcare professional to control your diabetes.
Talk with your doctor — or another healthcare professional — if you develop dry eye symptoms that last for more than a couple of days. Chronic dry eye that’s caused by diabetes, or by another health condition, can cause eye damage and even vision loss if it’s not treated.
People who have diabetes should see their ophthalmologist at least once per year. Regular eye exams are important for protecting your eye health.