Dry eye disease can lead to chronic inflammation of the ocular surface, the eyelid margins and the associated glands.

Know the symptoms

In its early stages, dry eye disease can often be misleading because the symptoms can be very non-specific and varied. It is common for people affected to believe that their symptoms are related to a foreign body in their eye, an issue with their contact lenses or as a result of staring at a computer screen for a prolonged period.

A large percentage of dry eye sufferers don’t realize they’re suffering with the disease.

“Dry eye is very common and it can hit people at any age,” explains Dr. Setareh Ziai, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute. “Most commonly, people experience burning, foreign body sensation and irritation. Ironically, dry eyes can also lead to excessive tearing. Symptoms are often worse in the cold, wind, and during the winter months when our heaters are on and our humidity levels are low.”

"Symptoms are often worse in the cold, wind, and during the winter months when our heaters are on and our humidity levels are low.”

Chronic dry eye can affect a person’s ability to read and use a computer or tablet for extended periods. “In severe cases, every aspect of a patient’s life can be affected, including work and play,” says Dr. Ziai.

Causes of dry eye

One of the most common causes of dry eye disease is blockage of the lipid-producing glands of the eyelids, which leads to instability of the tear film. “The blockage of these glands can lead to many of the symptoms of ocular surface dryness and, eventually, to inflammation of the ocular surface,” says Dr. Ziai.

“It is a vicious cycle: the inflammatory cells lead to an unhealthy ocular surface, which worsens patients’ symptoms, leading to increased aqueous tear production, tears that evaporate too quickly and leave the corneal surface irregular and dry - worsening the inflammation. This is what can lead to long term damage to the cornea.”

Women are more predisposed to dry eye than men, and the incidence increases with age. “People with systemic autoimmune diseases like diabetes, thyroid issues and rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to be affected,” says Dr. Ziai. “Taking certain medications or wearing contact lenses are additional risk factors.”

Combating dry eye

In most cases of mild, transient dry eye, over the counter, non-medicated lubricating eye drops and ointments work effectively, explains Dr. Ziai. “Not only do they lubricate the cornea, they also help to wash out the ocular surface,” she says. “In more chronic cases, medicated anti-inflammatory drops and procedural options are possible, and work quite well for long-term relief of symptoms.”

One of the best and easiest ways to treat any severity of dry eye is to place warm compresses over the eyes. The heat helps to unblock the glands responsible for producing the oils that are essential for proper lubrication of the ocular surface. “If you put warm compresses on the eyes for five minutes, once or twice a day, and then massage your eyelids, you will almost always see an improvement,” says Dr. Ziai.

“I tell all of my patients to do it; it’s free, easy, you don’t need a doctor, and it may just make the winter months easier to get through.”