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More Americans report dry-eye symptoms amid increasing air pollution and an aging population

February 06, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

kristinw@herald-mail.com

What you might think is a simple irritation could be a chronic syndrome.

After an eight-hour day of staring at the computer screen, do your eyes feel dry and irritated?

When you walk into a smoky bar or restaurant, do your eyes start burning from exposure to the smoke?

Do you find that you're constantly reaching for eye drops to make your eyes feel more comfortable and less dry?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are you have dry-eye syndrome.

Both doctors and patients are paying more attention to dry eyes these days. Some doctors believe the number of people experiencing dry-eye symptoms is increasing as air pollution levels rise and the population ages.

Dr. Jerzy Kornilow, an optometrist with Bergman Eye Associates and Eye Care Professionals in Hagerstown, is a dry-eye patient himself.

When he finds himself in a smoke-filled room or faced with fans "my eyes will feel dry, will feel burning," he says.

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Dr. John Nassif, an ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgeon at St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute in Florida, says the dry-eye condition is an "epidemic" although most people don't even know they have the syndrome.

"If I asked a hundred dry-eye people if they have dry-eye, do you know how many people would say they have dry-eye? Maybe one or two," Nassif says.

People might feel the symptoms of dry-eye - itching, burning and red eyes, blurred vision that improves with blinking, excessive tearing and irritation - but assume such sensations are due to other factors.

"This issue with dry-eye really wasn't a popular diagnosis 10 years ago," Kornilow says. He remembers talking about his dry-eye symptoms with other doctors during his optometric residency and was told he didn't have a problem.

Now doctors such as Nassif and Kornilow are letting patients know that dry-eye isn't an inevitable aspect of life, and many things can be done to make the eye feel more comfortable and to improve tear production.

Dry-eye syndrome is a chronic lack of sufficient lubrication and moisture in the eye. It can be caused by any number of factors, including age, illness, allergies and a dry environment. The condition can be aggravated by cigarette smoke or air pollution, training the eye at a computer or television screen for long periods of time and by wearing contact lenses, doctors explain.

The syndrome is one of the most common problems treated by eye doctors with more than 10 million Americans estimated to have the condition, according to information from St. Luke's Institute. When someone has dry eyes it is because the eyes are either not producing enough tears or the tear quality is poor.

The eyes are protected and preserved by three layers of tears. The first is a mucus layer that coats the cornea. The second layer is made up mostly of water and keeps the eye moist, supplying oxygen and nutrients to the cornea. The third layer is an oily film that seals in the mucus and water layers to keep the moisture from evaporating.

If there is a problem with any of the tear levels, the eyes can dry out, causing discomfort, burning and even excessive tearing.

In 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first prescription eyedrops that comes with its maker's claim that it increases tear production. Called Restasis, the drug was developed to combat dry-eye syndrome.

Kornilow says the prescription has been a good option for some of his dry-eye patients.

Nassif reminds there are many "common-sense" measures dry-eye patients can take.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in certain foods can help stabilize tears and can act as an anti-inflammatory, he says.

Drinking more water, using a humidifier and keeping a greater distance from television and computer screens, can also help people who experience dry-eye, Kornilow says. Blinking is necessary to spread tears across the eye. When people drive, watch television or use a computer, the number of times they blink is reduced.

"When we normally blink, we blink about 10 times per minute. When we watch TV or use the computer, we blink about once or twice a minute," Kornilow explains.

The FDA publication "Dealing with Dry Eye" estimates that half of all contact lens users complain of symptoms linked with dry-eye. Kornilow doesn't believe that many of his contact patients have problems with dry eyes, but Nassif thinks the 50 percent number is accurate.

"A lot of people have borderline issues, and, when you put them in a lens, it exacerbates the condition," Kornilow says. "Any contact lens will act as a sponge that wicks moisture away from the eye."

That's because contact lenses need moisture to maintain their form. For people with an existing dry-eye condition, however, contact lenses can lead to greater irritation and dryer-feeling eyes.

The contact lens industry is responding with lenses that promise to be more "breathable" and contain "built-in moisturizing agents."

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