Untreated Chronic Dry Eye Complications and Risks
Chronic dry eye is a condition where your eyes either don’t produce enough tears, or they produce low quality tears. It can be uncomfortable and cause symptoms like a gritty sensation in your eyes or redness. The severity of dryness varies from person to person. If you have a milder case of dry eye, you might shrug it off. But if it’s not going away or seems to be getting worse, it’s time to seek further treatment. Tears are necessary for eye health. They lubricate your eyes and wash away debris that can cause irritation. If left untreated, dry eye can progress and cause complications that affect the quality of your life.
Here’s a look at a few complications that can occur if you aren’t properly treating chronic dry eye.
A corneal ulcer is an open sore that develops on your cornea, which is the clear, protective outer layer of your eyes. These ulcers typically occur after an injury, but severely dry eyes can also play a role.
Debris like dirt and other particles can sometimes get into your eyes. If your tear glands don’t produce enough tears, your eyes might be unable to wash the particles away.
Debris can then scratch the surface of your cornea. If bacteria gets into the scratch, an infection can develop, causing an ulcer. Corneal ulcers are treatable with antibiotic eye drops. But if left untreated, these ulcers can spread and scar the eyeball, causing partial or complete blindness.
Untreated dry eye can also lead to inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the clear layer of cells that cover the white part of your eyeball and the inner surface of your eyelids.
This type of inflammation is known as conjunctivitis. Symptoms include redness, light sensitivity, and a gritty feeling in the eyes. This type of conjunctivitis is different from bacterial conjunctivitis. It’s usually milder and doesn’t require treatment, although you should see an eye doctor for inflammation that doesn’t improve or worsens.
Decreased tear production
Dry eyes can occur when you’re unable to produce enough tears. The medical term for this condition is keratoconjunctivitis sicca (ker-uh-toe-kun-junk-tih-VY-tis SIK-uh). Common causes of decreased tear production include:
- Certain medical conditions, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome, thyroid disorders and vitamin A deficiency
- Certain medications, including antihistamines, decongestants, hormone replacement therapy, antidepressants, and drugs for high blood pressure, acne, birth control and Parkinson’s disease
- Laser eye surgery, though symptoms of dry eyes related to this procedure are usually temporary
- Tear gland damage from inflammation or radiation
Increased tear evaporation
Common causes of increased tear evaporation include:
- Wind, smoke or dry air
- Blinking less often, which tends to occur when you’re concentrating, for example, while reading, driving or working at a computer
- Eyelid problems, such as out-turning of the lids (ectropion) and in-turning of the lids (entropion)
7 ways to treat and prevent it
When left untreated, dry eye can cause light sensitivity and blurred vision. Furthermore, under lubricated eyes are more susceptible to scratches or infection.
So how do you treat it?
The following home remedies are good first steps:
- Use a humidifier
- Wear glasses instead of contacts
- Take frequent breaks when staring at computer or TV screens
- Sleep for at least eight hours each night
- Avoid smoke
- Wear sunglasses or a hat
- Drink at least six glasses of water per day
If you try those but your dry eye persists, consider an over-the-counter eye lubricant drop. These come in the form of gels or ointments and can provide immediate relief.
If you still experience trouble after that, contact your physician. He or she can provide you with prescription-strength eye drops or, if necessary, discuss surgical options with you. This might include an outpatient procedure to provide punctal plugs, which temporarily close the small duct where tears drain from the eye.
Viral pink eye vs. bacterial pink eye
A virus that causes viral pink eye can spread from your nose to your eyes, or you can catch it when someone sneezes or coughs and the droplets come in contact with your eyes.
Bacteria cause bacterial pink eye. Usually the bacteria spreads to your eyes from your respiratory system or skin. You can also catch bacterial pink eye if you:
- touch your eye with unclean hands
- apply makeup that’s been contaminated with bacteria
- share personal items with someone who has pink eye
Both types of pink eye often start during an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold (virus) or sore throat (virus or bacteria).
Both viral and bacterial pink eye cause the same general symptoms, including:
- pink or red color in the white of the eyes
- itchy or scratchy feeling in the eye
- burning or irritation
- crusting of the eyelids or lashes, especially in the morning
- discharge from the eye
Here are a few ways to tell which type of pink eye you have.
Viral pink eye:
- usually starts in one eye but can spread to the other eye
- starts with a cold or other respiratory infection
- causes watery discharge from the eye
Bacterial pink eye:
- can start with a respiratory infection or an ear infection
- affects one or both eyes
- causes a thick discharge (pus) that makes the eyes stick together
Your healthcare provider can tell whether you’ve got a bacterial or a viral infection by taking a sample of the discharge from your eye and sending it to a lab for testing.
Treatment for Eye Infections
Obviously, bacteria cause bacterial infections, and viruses cause different viral infections. The treatments differ depending on whether you have a bacterial or viral infection.
Bacterial infections are often treated with antibiotics, which can kill the bacteria or stop it from multiplying. Antibiotics will not work for viral infections.
Instead, the symptoms of the virus are usually treated directly. There are some antiviral medicines that can stop the virus from reproducing. Certain vaccines can prevent viral infections from occurring in the first place, such as the vaccine for influenza.
Many of the common bacterial infections of the eye will readily clear up once you are prescribed an antibiotic or some other treatment like eye drops. Some of the more common viral eye infections may resolve on their own, but they may require antiviral eye drops or even steroids to reduce inflammation.