Itchy, burning, red or watery eyes? You may suffer from dry eye (medically known as ocular surface disease), an increasingly common condition for patients of all ages.
“Twenty years ago, dry eye used to be, except for a few rare cases, reserved for the ‘over-50’ crowd,” said Dr. Michelle Darnell, owner of Lilac Family Eye Care in Liberty Lake. “Today, we are seeing moderate and severe dry eye in younger and younger patients. I had a 10-year-old once who had such bad dry eye it was affecting his vision.”
So why so many more cases, and so many more young people impacted?
“Most researchers believe that the reason we are seeing dry eye in younger and younger generations is due to the increased amount of screen time that children, and people in general, are seeing today,” Dr. Darnell said, explaining research has shown we blink 1/3 to ¼ the amount of tears when staring at a device.
“Not only does this cause the eye to start to dry out, but it also means all of that unused oil that should have been blinked out sits and congeals in the oil glands on the eyelids,” Dr. Darnell said. “Eventually, that oil will clog up our glands, causing damage and eventually gland death.”
Dr. Darnell said the first recommended treatment is to limit screen time. Understanding some jobs require hours behind a screen, she also commonly works with patients to open up clogged oil glands and stimulate them to produce more oil. This treatment often includes a 10-minute “eye spa” using a heated silicone bead mask, after which she teaches patients how to properly squeeze out old oils, opening up the oil glands in the upper and lower lids. She also recommends high-quality fish oil to stimulate oil production in the eyes. She emphasizes that patients should work with an eye care professional in order to ensure the appropriate techniques, dosages and brands are used.
After all, Dr. Darnell said no two patients are the same, and she takes care to customize treatments to each individual situation.
“Many times, especially in people with mild ocular surface disease, the daily eye spa and quality fish oil are enough to bring relief and get their eyes comfortable,” she said. “In those patients with more advanced dry eye, we may need to get a little more aggressive in our treatment to find long-term relief.”
NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 Liberty Lake Yearbook.