AVENTURA, Fla. – An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from a condition that sends them to the doctor's office complaining of eye irritation and, in some cases, searing pain. It has nothing to do with seasonal allergies or infections, as the culprit in these cases is a condition called dry eye.
Mary Oliver has suffered from dry eyes for years
"I had a solid week of waking up every night," said Oliver. "It was like an explosion in one eye in particular."
Oliver said it became unbearable.
"I was really afraid to go to bed because I knew I was going to have that explosion, that searing, jarring pain," said Oliver. "It was just really, really bad."
In many people, the glands that produce tears dry up as they age. Dry eye may also be caused by poor quality tears that aren't lubricating enough to protect the cornea from the environment.
"The cornea, which is the clear window on the front of the eye, is the most sensitive part of your anatomy and if that is getting dried out, you feel big time discomfort in your eye," said Dr. Lee Duffner, an ophthalmologist.
That pain can range from minor irritation, or as in Oliver's case, severe.
"We have lots of people that are incapacitated with dry eye," said Duffner. "Try driving or something if you can't keep your eyes open. It's not so easy."
The first line of defense is over-the-counter drops to add back moisture. There are a plethora of products that allow users to find the one that best suits them.
Steroids, antibiotics and Omega-three fatty acids may also help ease the inflammation associated with dry eye.
There's also one prescription medication, Restasis that may help the glands actually function better.
"It's not something that makes you instantly better," said Duffner. "You have to be taking it for months before the glands regenerate or resume function."
Four times a day, Oliver puts medication in her eyes. Her only other option may be surgery.
"I hope that this is it and that I'm fine with this system," said Oliver.
Sometimes dry eye can be brought on by other conditions, including corneal disease and ocular rosacea. It's important to be evaluated by a specialist sooner than later. Left untreated, it can be more than just irritating.
Additionally, staring at a computer screen doesn't cause dry eyes, but it certainly can aggravate the problem. Be sure to blink regularly about every six seconds to keep your eyes lubricated.