If you regularly wake in the morning with red, irritated eyes encrusted by those pesky "sleep boogers," first ask yourself this question: "Was I out partying until 3 a.m. again?" If you don't remember, then perhaps you were. But if the answer is unequivocally "no," then you might be suffering from dry eyes.
Dry eye affects 25 million Americans and becomes increasingly more common as we get older (or "mature," as I like to say). The two most likely culprits behind this phenomenon are your oil glands and tear glands. Dry eye can occur when your oil glands get clogged and inflamed along the edge of the eyelids (aka the "waterline") or your tear glands simply aren't producing enough lubricating tears. I've heard my patients claim that they thought this is just a normal part of the aging process; however, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, dry eyes are about as normal as chronic headaches, toothaches or loss of bowel control.
There is good news, though: Dry eye can be easily treated either at home or through a quick visit to your eye doctor. Here are nine surprisingly effective remedies that should help relieve this annoyance:
1. Artificial Tear Eye Drops: These nifty little lubricants abound at your local drugstore and fall into two categories: with preservatives and preservative-free. Choosing the right artificial tear can be as daunting as choosing the best dish off a 10-page menu. While these drops aren't flavored, everyone's eyes have unique preferences just like our taste buds. What works for Joe down the block may blur your vision for a period or require more frequent application. To pick the best fit for your eyes, I'd recommend an old-fashioned bout of trial and error.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish oil and flax oil help lubricate the body's mucous membranes, and that includes your eyes. Remember, the key is to take them ORALLY. I once had a friend call me in a blurred panic after a failed attempt at putting fish oil in her eyes. Flax oil is more effective than fish oil for these purposes and can save you from that less-than-desirable fish-flavored burp that no one appreciates (unless your best friends are Ariel and Sebastian).
3. Medicated Eye Drops: Steroid drops can help as a temporary "Band-Aid," but they are not meant for long-term use. This isn't from a worry that your eye muscles will eventually bulge like a bodybuilder's biceps, but rather because extended use can increase your risk of developing cataracts or glaucoma. Restasis is another medicated class of anti-inflammatory eye drops that may provide you a bit of relief.
4. Moisture Goggles: Some folks' eyelids simply do not close all the way when they sleep. Obviously you can't see this yourself (and a mirror above your bed won't help, I promise), but if someone once told you that they could see the whites of your eyes while you slept you may fall into this category. These goggles create a moisture barrier to block evaporation from the eye and may make a big difference for your eye comfort the next day.
5. Punctal Plugs: Don't focus on the "punctal" part, think "plugs" to avoid confusion. Your eye doctor can place a tiny plug in a drainage port in the corner of your eyelid to slow the natural siphoning of tears from the surface of the eye. It's akin to placing a stopper in the bathtub drain. Your doctor may end up feeling like a "reverse plumber," but these plugs can be highly effective.
6. Warm Compresses: If your eye doctor diagnosed you with blepharitis (inflamed and clogged oil glands at the edge of your eyelids), then simply starting an at-home warm compress routine can help. Abiding by the daily recommendation can be a challenge for the long-haul, so try to fit in a compress while you're at the sink or in the shower to make it part of your daily routine.
7. Lipiflow: This device for treating blepharitis takes away the grunt work of you needing to clean out your own oil glands. In 12 minutes, this in-office procedure massages out the clogged content of your eyes through the clever application of heat and massaging. This spa-treatment for your eyes does not come with a full body massage though, despite many requests from patients.
8. Testosterone Cream: Years ago, an esteemed research team from Harvard Medical School confirmed that an imbalance of too much estrogen and not enough testosterone is linked to dry eyes. For example, this is a major reason why women on birth control pills frequently experience dry eye issues. By correcting this imbalance with a topical testosterone cream applied to the eyelid skin, many people have found much needed relief (but don't expect the same results from Viagra or Cialis).
9. IPL (Intense Pulsed Light): Traditionally used by dermatologists, IPL is now entering as a dry eye treatment since it has been shown to decrease inflammation of blepharitis by reducing the number of blood vessels that accumulate around the eyelids. Excessive blood flow can choke the meibomian glands, causing dry eye problems.
If you or someone you know has dry eyes, consult with your eye doctor before making any treatment decisions. They'll help you decide whether an at-home or in-office treatment is best for you, and trust me -- your eyes will thank you.
Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler is an inventor of eye surgical procedures and a best-selling author of three books on Keratoconus, refractive surgery and LASIK. He has been an FDA investigator for 13 clinical trials and is extensively published in medical literature. For more information, please visit www.keratoconusinserts.com or www.boxerwachler.com.