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Chronic Risks and Complications of Untreated Dry Eye

Overview

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.

Corneal ulcer

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.

Conjunctivitis

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.

Inability to wear contact lenses

For contact lenses to feel comfortable, your eyes need to produce enough tears. If not, your contact lenses can become overly dry. This can lead to irritation, a gritty sensation, and redness.

Dry contact lenses can also stick to your eyeball, making it difficult to remove them. Because contacts need moisture, chronic dry eye may prevent you from wearing your lenses. You may have to wear eyeglasses instead.

Difficulty reading or driving

If your vision becomes blurry, you may think your eyes have changed and you need a stronger prescription for your eyeglasses or contacts.

But sometimes, blurry vision is a symptom of chronic dry eye. If left untreated, blurriness may gradually worsen, or you could develop double vision.

If so, you may have trouble driving a car and reading. Sometimes, even working can become difficult or impossible with blurry vision.

Difficulty keeping your eyes open

Depending on the severity of dry eye, you may have difficulty keeping your eyes open. This can happen if you have the sensation that something is in your eye or if you have extreme light sensitivity.

Artificial tears may provide some moisture to help open your eyes, but you might be unable to fully open them. You may squint, especially when exposed to sunlight or computer light. An inability to keep your eyes open also makes driving impossible.

Headaches

More research is needed, but there appears to be a connection between dry eyes and headaches. Even though the relationship isn’t fully understood, some people diagnosed with dry eye also experience headaches.

One recent studyTrusted Source found that people who live with migraine headaches are more likely to have dry eyes compared to the general population.

Dealing with chronic headaches can affect every area of your life. It may become difficult to concentrate and enjoy your favorite activities with your family and friends. It can also affect your productivity at work and school.

Depression

There’s also a connection between untreated dry eye and depression.

Because dry eye syndrome can affect your quality of life — making it difficult to perform everyday activities — it can affect your emotional well-being.

One study evaluated the relationship between dry eye disease and depressive symptoms in over 6,000 women. Researchers found that women diagnosed with dry eye had a higher likelihood of developing psychological stress, depressive moods, and anxiety.

The connection isn’t fully understood. It could be that some medications for treating depression having a drying effect on the eyes, or that dry eyes limit activity to the point where a person becomes withdrawn, anxious, and depressed.

If the latter is true, it appears that chronic dry eye can affect emotional health in the same way that other chronic conditions affect mood.

Takeaway

Chronic dry eye is a common problem, but it can lead to severe complications if left untreated. Some people are able to resolve dry eyes with over-the-counter artificial tears. If these don’t work for you, speak with your ophthalmologist or optometrist. The right therapy can increase the quality of your tears and improve the quality of your life.

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