Winter Eyes

While thcold-winter-for-dry-eyesere may be snow on the ground, ice on the roads, and sleet in the air, the overall humidity is low this time of year; low humidity along with heat, from space heaters to heat pumps to a roaring fire in the fire place, can cause or worsen dry eye symptoms.   Dry eye syndrome, also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, is a common condition with a wide array of symptoms.  People with dry eyes often describe feeling like their eyes are “tired.”  Other symptoms include burning, redness, foreign body sensation (feeling like something is in your eye), decreased vision, and even tearing.  The symptoms tend to be worse first thing in the morning, late in the day or evening or while doing anything that is visually intensive such as reading or working on the computer.  When we do such activities our brain turns off the blink reflex; in other words we forget to blink.  This results in dryness on the surface of the eye and small abrasions of the cornea.  Because the cornea contains the highest density of pain receptors of any organ in the body, these small abrasions may be very uncomfortable.  In addition, if the cornea and the tear film are not smooth and clear, it may be difficult to see.

Dry eye treatment ranges from tear replacement to tear retention to stimulation of tear production.  I usually have patients start by using artificial tears on a regular basis.  Artificial tears replace the paucity of natural tears made by your eyes and surrounding glands.  For artificial tears to be effective there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Artificial tears prevent drying and abrasion of the cornea therefore the ideal times to use them is before you have dry eye symptoms – i.e. put a drop in before you sit down to read or work on the computer.
  • The cornea is not well lubricated during sleep, so people often wake up with irritation and dryness.
  • For this reason, just before you go to sleep and right after you wake up are also ideal times to use artificial tears.
  •  Avoid any tears that claim to “relieve redness” or “get the red out.”  While that may seem tempting, these drops will make your eyes more irritated.
  • If you are going to use artificial tears more than 4 times per day, a preservative free tear is the best option.  Preservative in tears may cause further irritation if it is used in excess.

One of the most common causes of tearing is dryness.  At first glance this doesn’t seem to make sense.  As your eyes get dry and irritated, your body tries to fix the problem by making more tears.   While that sounds like a good idea, tearing then tends to be excessive and the tears are not effective.  Often, regular use of artificial tears can prevent tearing.

If you are using artificial tears on a regular basis and still having dry eye symptoms, you should have your eyes examined to make sure that there is not another disease process.  I am happy to discuss other treatment options with you so that you are comfortable and your eyes stay healthy. – Claiborne M. Callahan, MD