Easy on the Eyes
Why a little scratchiness may be much more

It’s a balmy April weekend in the Triangle. You’re strolling by native plants at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, canoeing the Eno River in Durham or picnicking in Umstead State Park in Raleigh. There’s beauty as far as you can see…but what’s that scratchy feeling in your eyes?


Dry Eye Syndrome (DES) is characterized by an insufficiency in the amount or quality of tears, which results in itchy, painful, sandy, gritty or even burning sensations. For the millions of Americans who have the condition, it can get in the way of daily living.


Cast your eyes on this: Our peepers need tears to keep them healthy. In most people, a constant tear film lubricates and protects our instrument of vision. In people with DES, a decreased production of fluid can weaken the tear film, causing the eyes to become dry, irritated and uncomfortable. Symptoms tend to get worse as the day progresses.


Those with the illness are more likely to report problems with everyday activities, including reading, using a computer, driving and watching television, than people without DES, according to a study in the “American Journal of Ophthalmology.” The researchers concluded that DES may be more of a public health problem than previously realized.


Signs of the disorder usually first appear in adults over the age of 40, but they can appear in individuals between the ages of 20 and 30.


Women are approximately two to three times more likely to get DES than men.


“We do not know all of the reasons why,” says Dr. Debra Schaumberg, author of the study and director of ophthalmic epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.


“However, there is speculation that one of the chief reasons might be that sex steroid hormones are involved in the pathogenesis of the disease.”


Other reasons women may be disproportionately affected include the balance of female and male sex hormones. 


“There are data to support the hypothesis that androgens (male sex hormones) are protective whereas estrogens (female sex hormones) appear to play a more detrimental role,” Schaumberg explains.


The ailment is a serious issue for those who have it. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons people seek care from opthomologists. Still, it may be clinically disregarded.  


“DES is relatively overlooked because it is not on the short list of major causes of blindness and visual impairment,” Schaumberg states.


If the symptoms persist, they can present more difficulties, which can be as debilitating as other chronic illnesses and lead to larger physical and emotional health problems.


There is no cure for the sickness, “but its irritations can most certainly be alleviated and its effects most certainly treated,” writes Dr. Robert Latkany, founder and director of the Dry Eye Clinic at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, in his book, “The Dry Eye Remedy.”


Current treatments include eye drops, artificial tear solutions, anti-inflammatory agents, topical steroids, procedures to plug the tear ducts and surgery. Research into new treatments is on the horizon.