Spring has sprung, but dry eyes are still here
Dry eyes are an unfortunate reality of winter for many people. Seasonal changes—such as high winds, cooler temperatures and lower humidity levels—can lead to reduced tear production, and therefore, dryness and discomfort in and around our eyes.
With the spring season (and warmer weather) around the corner, you’d hope dry eye symptoms would finally start to dissipate. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, for many people, dry eye symptoms actually flare up in the spring, coinciding with allergy season. It’s a double whammy of eye irritation, but the good news is, there are many ways to keep symptoms at bay.
Before we dive into remedies, it’s important to understand the difference between dry eye and seasonal allergies—and how they sometimes can overlap.
Dry Eye Disease
Dry eye is exactly what is sounds like; it’s when our eyes fail to produce quality tears to stay hydrated, resulting in stinging or burning sensations, redness, blurred vision, and itchiness, among other symptoms. And yes, watery eyes as well.
Essentially, our eyes are constantly showered in a complex fluid composed of three main constituents. Together, it makes a tear film, which keeps our eyes hydrated, healthy and comfortable throughout the day and night. While the watery part provides hydration, the outer oily component prevents evaporation, and the mucous portion layer ensures the tears are evenly distributed. Each constituent serves a critical purpose, and they work in tandem with one another.
If a single one of these constituents isn’t working well, it can disrupt the whole system, resulting in dry eyes. While seasonal changes can spur dry eye (cold weather can cause or exacerbate dry eye symptoms), other common causes include medical conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis), or meibomian gland dysfunction (oil glands along the edge of our eyelids) that don’t produce enough oil or produce poor quality oils.
A person is also more at risk of experiencing dry eye if they spend excessive time looking at a screen or working outdoors, or if they are on certain medications, including antihistamines, high blood pressure medications (diuretics) and thyroid supplements. Additionally, women are more likely than men to experience dry eye, particularly post-menopause.
Although the start of spring means snowy conditions are subsiding and the sun is finally starting to come out, it also means the peak of allergy season is upon us—impacting one in six Canadians.
Allergic conjunctivitis (allergies impacting our eyes) and dry eye have a lot in common. For starters, they share many of the same symptoms, including irritation, watering and redness. Itchiness can be present in both cases, though it’s generally more severe with allergies.
While symptoms are relatively similar, the underlying causes of the conditions are entirely different. On the one hand, dry eye can occur for a slew of reasons ranging from medications to gender, and on the other, allergic conjunctivitis occurs when an individual is exposed to a triggering allergen or group of allergens, which spurs their immune system to release histamine, resulting in swelling and inflammation.
When it comes to seasonal allergies, our eyes often bear the brunt of the burden. Allergic conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva—the tissue that coats the inside of the eyelids, and the sclera (the white part of the eyeball). The irritation is caused by allergens, including pollen, dust and mold, as well as grass and other airborne particles that typically surface during the springtime.
In any case, it’s very difficult to decipher between allergies and dry eye. If you are suffering from symptoms, it’s important to book a comprehensive eye exam, so your doctor can examine your ocular tissues and determine the cause of the irritation and inflammation. Then, they will help you treat the condition accordingly.
The overlap between allergies and dry eye
Even though dry eye and allergic conjunctivitis are fundamentally different conditions with unique underlying causes, they can be experienced simultaneously. In fact, allergies can even contribute to dry eye, and vice versa.
Chronic allergies can cause tissue changes in the glands, which can disrupt tear production. Plus, studies have shown that allergens like pollen can directly aggravate already existent dry eye symptoms, and taking allergy medications (specifically antihistamines) can likewise cause a decrease in tear production, leading to dry eye.
On the flip side, allergy-induced inflammation can cause dry eye, too. The two conditions are closely related—including with what time of year they most commonly affect people.
Dry eye symptoms and allergy symptoms tend to reach their peak around the same time: the month of April.
Fortunately, there are several effective treatments for dry eyes and seasonal allergies that can help alleviate your symptoms. Before exploring these treatment options, it's essential to consult your optometrist for guidance.
A common issue with dry eyes includes not being able to produce enough tears or having excess tears evaporate too quickly. To combat this, eye drops and artificial tears can be used to help maintain moisture and reduce inflammation in the tear ducts. Antihistamines are also widely available as a treatment for allergies, providing relief from discomfort.
In addition to medications, other treatments for dry eyes and seasonal allergies involve practical lifestyle changes. Using a warm compress can help soothe irritated eyes, while minimizing the time spent wearing contact lenses can reduce eye strain and prevent further irritation. Sunglasses are another effective way to protect your eyes from the sun and wind, especially when outdoors.
Lastly, taking breaks from staring at screens can help alleviate eye strain and further prevent dry eye symptoms. Incorporating these tips into your daily routine can contribute to healthier eyes and better overall eye comfort.
Ultimately, the only real way to determine the cause of discomfort is by consulting with a professional who can offer the best advice about moving forward and feeling better. Book a comprehensive eye exam today at an FYidoctors clinic near you!