Senior Health

2/1/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

The “dry eye” condition isn’t just a nuisance – it could impair your vision. We look at the importance of tears and possible treatments for dry eyes.

Tears have long been a symbol of emotion (think of all the songs written about them over the years!). But these tiny droplets of oil, water, and mucous also have an important physiological function. Every time you blink, a thin layer of tears spreads across the surface of your eye and helps focus light so you can see clearly. Tears also protect your eyes from infections and irritants in the air.

That’s why when your tears aren’t doing their job, your eyes can feel scratchy and uncomfortable. You can even have difficulty seeing. This condition is known simply as “dry eye.”

So, what is dry eye?

The dry eye condition is when your eyes don’t produce enough tears, your tears dissipate too quickly, or your tears don’t have what it takes to keep your eyes wet. This condition can cause your eyes to become inflamed, feel scratchy, burn, sting, or tired, develop stringy mucous, or feel like there’s something in there. It can also cause blurred vision.

What causes this condition?

woman putting eye drops in her eyes.

Dry eye can be brought on by age alone. Especially common for those over 60, this eye condition occurs in 5 to 30 percent of the senior population, with women at a higher risk than men, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Dry eye can also be caused by environmental conditions, such as smoke, wind, or dry climates, or specific problems within the eye itself, such as tear ducts that allow your tears to drain too quickly or oil glands that are blocked (oil is necessary to keep your tears from drying out too quickly). Plus, this condition can also be a side effect of medication, laser eye surgery, or a health problem, such as diabetes or an autoimmune disease.

How is dry eye diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of dry eye, your optometrist can check for this condition by dilating your pupils. Through a simple and painless process, the volume of your tears will be assessed. The doctor will also evaluate the quality and composition of your tears, how long it takes for your tears to dry up, the structure of your eyelids, etc.

What’s the treatment?

In most mild cases, using over-the-counter artificial tears can easily resolve the problem. However, if this simple solution doesn’t work, your health care practitioner might determine that a medication you’re on is the culprit and change medications. Or they might prescribe a medication to stimulate your tear production or reduce eyelid inflammation, which can prevent oil glands from secreting oil into your tears.

Your doctor may also recommend procedures such as tear duct plugs, which help keep tears from draining from your eye too quickly. Other treatments include warm compresses to unblock oil glands and special contacts called scleral lenses that trap moisture on the surface of your eyes. In rare cases, eyelid surgery is required. Left untreated, dry eye can go from simple discomfort to damage to the surface of your eyes, which can impair your vision.

Your tears are an outward sign of what you’re feeling inside, but they’re also protecting one of your most important senses: your sight. If your eyes are red or feel scratchy or painful, don’t ignore it. Make an appointment with your optometrist right away. You only have two eyes – be sure to look out for them!

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones