Why It's Important to Treat Dry Eyes


Linda Wasmer Andrews

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Female eyes

If you’re like many people, you may not take dry eyes seriously—but that could be a big mistake. Left untreated, dry eye syndrome can cause discomfort and bouts of blurry vision. It can interfere with your activities—for example, making it hard to use a computer for long periods or travel comfortably in the dry cabin of a plane.

What you might not know is that untreated dry eyes can also damage your cornea, the clear, dome-shaped outer layer covering the front of the eye. In severe cases, this damage can lead to permanent vision loss and even blindness. Fortunately, such problems usually can be averted by getting treatment for dry eyes.

The Importance of Tears

Unlike other parts of your body, the cornea doesn’t contain any blood vessels. Rather than getting oxygen and nutrients from blood, it receives them from tears. These tears also cleanse your eyes and wash away dust and germs.

When you have dry eye syndrome, the quantity or quality of tears is insufficient, so the health of your cornea may suffer. In some cases, the cornea also becomes inflamed. If left untreated, this inflammation may lead to painful open sores and scarring of the cornea. If corneal sores aren’t treated, vision loss can be permanent.

A film of tears over the cornea also helps keep it clear and smooth. This is crucial for good vision, because it’s the point where light is first focused as it enters the eye. When the tear film is inadequate, vision isn’t as sharp as it otherwise would be.

Three Cornea Conditions

These three cornea conditions may result from ignoring eye dryness:

Corneal ulcer

This is an open sore on the cornea. It can result from eye inflammation or an eye infection—and the risk of infection is increased in people with insufficient tear production. Possible symptoms include:

  • Eye redness

  • Severe eye pain or soreness

  • Gritty feeling in the eye

  • Excessive watering

  • Pus or other discharge

  • Blurry vision

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Swollen eyelids

  • White spot on the cornea

If you develop such symptoms, call your ophthalmologist right away. Without prompt treatment, a corneal ulcer may lead to scarring and severe vision loss that can be chronic. Antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral eye drops may be prescribed for an infection. Steroid or anti-inflammatory eye drops help prevent scarring, and oral pain medicine helps relieve pain.

Corneal abrasion

This is a scratch or scrape on the cornea. Among other things, it can result from vigorous rubbing of your eyes. It can also be caused by a foreign object in the eye, and a lack of tears means you’re missing the eye’s natural defense for washing away dust and debris. Possible symptoms include:

  • Eye pain, which may worsen when you open or close your eye

  • Gritty feeling in the eye

  • Excessive watering

  • Eye redness

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Blurry vision

  • Headache

Contact your eye doctor if you think you may have a corneal abrasion. Depending on the situation, steroid eye drops, antibiotic eye drops or ointment, or a pain reliever may be prescribed. Your eye might also be patched to make you more comfortable while the abrasion heals.

Pterygium (pronounced “teri-jee-um”)

This is a pinkish, triangular growth on the cornea. The cause isn’t fully understood, but dry eye syndrome may sometimes play a role. Some people don’t have any symptoms other than a visible growth. Others experience symptoms such as eye redness, itching, or burning; a gritty feeling in the eye; and blurry vision.

Ask your eye doctor how to manage a pterygium. A small growth that doesn’t cause bothersome symptoms may not require any treatment. But if it becomes red and inflamed, mild steroid eye drops might be prescribed. A growth large enough to threaten eyesight or cause lasting discomfort can be surgically removed.

Although these conditions can be treated, it’s much better to prevent them. Seeking appropriate care for dry eye syndrome helps your eyes stay comfortable and healthy.

Medical Reviewers: Cindy Haines, MD Last Review Date: Aug 1, 2013

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Medical References

  1. “Etiology, Prevalence, and Treatment of Dry Eye Disease.” J.L. Gayton. Clinical Ophthalmology, 2009, vol. 3, pp. 405-412.;
  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-abrasion.cfm);
  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-abrasion-cause.cfm);
  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-abrasion-symptoms.cfm);
  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-abrasion-treatment.cfm);
  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-ulcer.cfm);
  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-ulcer-cause.cfm);
  8. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-ulcer-symptoms.cfm);
  9. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/corneal-ulcer-treatment.cfm);
  10. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/dry-eye.cfm);
  11. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/pinguecula-pterygium.cfm);
  12. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/pinguecula-pterygium-diagnosis-treatment.cfm);
  13. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/pinguecula-pterygium-symptoms.cfm);
  14. American Academy of Ophthalmology (http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/glasses-contacts-lasik/contact-lens-care.cfm);
  15. National Eye Institute (http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/cornealdisease);
  16. National Eye Institute (http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/dryeye/dryeye.asp);

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