Women are at higher risk of developing some eye diseases and conditions.
Among them is dry eye syndrome, caused when the body doesn't make enough tears to lubricate the eye naturally.
"Tear production normally decreases as we age, so the condition is extremely common in people over age 55 of both sexes," explains Moran Eye Center ophthalmologist Amy Lin, MD. "However, it is intrinsically two to three times more common in women than in men at any age."
According to Lin, dry eye is one of the leading causes of visits to eye professionals.
There is no single cause of dry eye, and it seldom leads to blindness. But it can cause a lot of suffering and a diminished quality of life. When your eyes feel scratchy or sensitive to light, it's hard to read and drive, especially at night. Dry eye can also increase the risk of eye infection.
Dry Eye Symptoms
Dry eye symptoms can range from mild to severe. They include:
- A stinging, burning, or scratchy/gritty sensation in your eyes
- A feeling of having something in your eyes
- Stringy mucus around or in your eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Eye redness
- Difficulty wearing contact lenses
- Watery eyes—the body's response to dry-eye irritation
- Blurry vision
What Causes Dry Eye?
According to Lin, women have more dry eyes than men thanks to hormonal changes in estrogen, progesterone, and even testosterone, which occur throughout their lives. These hormonal changes affect the quantity and quality of the tear film, or layer of tear fluid that protects the eye.
But hormones aren't the only factor. Cosmetic use can worsen dry eyes. Eyeliner may plug the oil glands behind the eyelashes and makeup debris can disrupt the tear film.
Several common prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can also reduce tear secretion and cause dry eye. The list includes some diuretics, beta-blockers, antihistamines, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs, and pain relievers. If you are taking any of these medications and experience dry eye, be sure to tell your eye care professional.
Too much screen time can also contribute to dry eye.
How to Avoid or Lessen Dry Eye
"In general, people suffering from dry eye should try to avoid overly warm, dry rooms with furnaces blasting, hairdryers, smoke, or wind, and wear wraparound sunglasses when outdoors," advises Lin. "A humidifier in dry rooms may help, as can artificial tear ointment at bedtime."
If you spend a lot of time in front of a screen, give your eyes a break every 20 minutes. Look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Eating fatty fish, such as tuna or salmon, may also help prevent dry eye disease.
How is Dry Eye Treated?
Artificial tears are the mainstay of dry eye treatment, but while they can offer temporary relief, they do little to stop or reverse any damaging conditions.
"You can try several brands of artificial tears and ointments without a prescription," says Lin. "For mild cases, try several to find the one you like best, and if possible, use preservative-free drops, as preservatives in some can irritate the eyes."
People with ongoing dry eye symptoms, including constant tearing that interferes with daily functioning, should consult with their eye care professional to rule out infection or injury and look at treatment options.
"Women may think they're just too busy with children, jobs, or elder care to get an eye exam or new glasses," says Lin. "But poor vision can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being. We all need to pay attention and take a moment for self-care."
Prevent Blindness has designated April as Women's Eye Health and Safety Month. The idea is to raise awareness, educate, and provide recommendations on vision care.
Lin joins Moran's Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, and other prominent ophthalmologists writing in-depth about dry eye and other conditions that affect women at w-e-h.org. The website is produced in partnership with the National Eye Health Education Program and Women in Ophthalmology and features content written by women for women.