Dry eye syndrome is a ubiquitous condition driven by the decreased production of tears that moisten the eyes. When treatment is delayed, this can cause lasting damage to the corneal surface, which contributes to declining vision. Eventually, an individual may suffer permanent vision loss or blindness, a study has warned.
The latest research, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has warned that people with very dry eyes could be at heightened risk of vision loss.
The study showed that very dry eyes could alter the way the protective cornea heals itself after injury, according to scientists.
When the eyes are unable to lubricate themselves adequately with natural tears, this causes substantial discomfort.
The most common symptoms are:
- Stinging, burning or scratchy sensation in the eyes
- Stringy mucus in or around the eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Eye redness.
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Without adequate tears, the eyes are put at risk of contracting an infection, which could lead to severe inflammation if left untreated.
Activities that require prolonged exposure to screens may lead to overuse of the eyes and dryness.
Equally, chronic exposure to certain environments like aeroplanes and air-conditioned rooms can aggravate the eyes.
The condition is typically treated with generic eye drops, but the study on mice revealed proteins made by stem cells help to regenerate the protective cornea of the eyes, which could pave the way for more effective treatments.
The first author of the study, a PhD student in Professor Apte’s lab, explained: “We conducted single-cell RNA sequencing to identify genes important to maintaining the health of the cornea.
“We believe a few of them, particularly SPARC, may provide potential therapeutic targets for treating dry eye disease and corneal injury.”
The leader of the study, Professor Rajendra Apte, of Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, added: “We have drugs, but they only work well in about 10 to 15 per cent of patients.
“In this study involving genes that are key to eye health, we identified potential targets for treatment that appear different in dry eyes than in healthy eyes.”
The researcher continued: “Tens of millions of people around the world – with an estimated 15 million in the United States alone – endure eye pain and blurred vision as a result of complications and injury associated with dry eye disease.
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“By targeting these proteins, we may able to more successfully treat or even prevent those injuries.”
According to Francesca Marchetti, locus optometrist and OAP councillor, one in four people in the UK suffer from dry eye disease.
Some of these people, however, may not register their symptoms, even after enduring discomfort for months.
The expert noted: “If it’s very mild or if they have had it for a long time, people are not aware of it. More and more people have got dry eye disease. It is known as a lifestyle epidemic.”
The condition is also more prevalent during the winter and spring, due to factors such as lower indoor humidity and high winds.
To prevent such complications, the Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding blowing air directly into your eyes and adding moisture to the air.
It adds: “Blinking regularly, especially when reading or using the computer for long periods of time.”
From a dietary standpoint, adding foods rich in vitamin A to the diet, like pumpkins, apricots, carrots, tomatoes, spinach and dairy products can protect the surface of the eye.