Do You Have Dry Eye Disease?

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The ubiquity of screens in everyday life has led to sleeplessness, headaches, and a rash of dry, unblinking eyes. A new study shows that chronic dry eyes — called dry-eye disease — impacts about 10 percent of the population, who require medication to fight the increased pain sensitivity and a weaker immune system that come with the ailment. 

"Many factors can lead to dry-eye disease, including certain medications, hormonal changes, and several systemic diseases, but also working on a computer screen," says lead study author Jelle Vehof, an ophthalmology researcher at King's College London. "When you stare at a display screen too long, you forget to blink, leading to an evaporated tear film and, as a consequence, dry eyes and blurred vision." Dry-eye disease was found especially in the 20- to 30-year-olds of the study — those often tethered to smartphones, laptops and tablets.

It's not always easy to tell whether eye pain is just annoying or if it's actually dry-eye disease — the condition shouldn't be confused with just having dry eyes. "Most of us experience dry eyes and some of these other symptoms now and again," says Dr. Rachel Bishop, an ophthalmologist with the National Eye Institute. "If it's occasional, like once a month, no big deal." You can easily explain these symptoms by pinpointing things in your environment — like a fan above your desk or a heated office where the air is dry.

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But when the symptoms of tearing, dryness, scratchiness or eye pain start to seriously affect your daily routine — whether you're avoiding the sun or wind, or getting blurry vision and headaches at work — that's when it could be dry-eye disease, says Bishop, who suggests heading to an ophthalmologist or optometrist, if you suspect you have the disease. One of the first things docs recommend is eye drops, also called artificial tears. "These are all very easy to use and effective, and most are sold over the counter," Bishop says, but warns they should be used in moderation. If you're using drops more than four times a day, find a product with no preservatives. "These chemicals keep bacteria from growing in the bottle, and for most people, they don't cause a problem." Using drops 10 times a day is too much chemical exposure and irritates the eye surface.

Bishop also suggests using warm compresses on the eyes, which unclog the glands and allow oil to reach the eye. Fish oil supplements might also help. "A lot of early evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplements such as fish oil can be helpful for dry-eye disease," says Bishop. And when at work or watching a movie on your tablet, it also helps to make a conscious effort to blink more. "Every 20 minutes, look away for 20 seconds and blink repeatedly," says Bishop. "This reduces strain on the eye muscles caused by focusing on one thing constantly."

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