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Dry and Itchy Eyes? Q&A With Dr. Zak

A Discussion about Dry Eyes with Dr. Robert Zak of Apex Optometry

Our modern age and environment can be challenging for our eyes. Dry Eyes is now a recognized eye disease marked by either decreased tear production or increased tear film evaporation. Typical symptoms include dryness, burning and a sandy-gritty eye irritation that gets worse as the day goes on. 

We spoke with Dr. Robert Zak of Apex Optometry, a dry eyes expert serving the South Okanagan to find out what can be done about this problem.

Is it true that Dry Eye symptoms seem to be more severe during the winter months?
While Dry Eye symptoms are definitely a significant issue all year round, winter can be a greater challenge for many suffering with this chronic condition.  With colder weather people are spending increased hours indoors. With the furnace running, the dry air exacerbates Dry Eye symptoms.  We usually see more patients coming into our Penticton optometry practice with Dry Eye symptoms during the winter. Now with summer here, people must ensure their eyes stay moist and lubricated.

When should someone come in to see their optometrist for Dry Eye symptoms?
Dry Eye is a very real condition that needs to be examined and dealt with appropriately.  Many people may be under the impression that it is enough to put some drops in their eyes and their problems will go away. Not true: while over- the-counter artificial tears can help with mild cases, they can also prolong the issue and sometimes even cause it to worsen. Chronic soreness, irritation, or scratchiness are all really good reasons to make an appointment and have an examination performed by your optometrist.

What do you check in order to assess whether a patient is suffering from Dry Eyes?
There are numerous tests that we use in order to check the stability of the tear film and to measure the production of tears. While these tests are helpful, the most important information is the description of symptoms by the patient.

What are the common treatments that you use in order to help people suffering from Dry Eyes?
There are so many products out there providing artificial lubrication for the eyes that it can be very confusing for our patients. Natural tears produced by the eye are complex, and are made up of many types of enzymes, oils, and other substances, each of them playing an important role. In order to work out the treatment, we first need to identify the problem. Once an individual patient is accurately assessed and diagnosed, the most common treatment is to find the lubrication that will address the patient's needs. Other products such as Restasis (to decrease inflammation) and protective eyewear are often utilized.

My eyes frequently are overly watery. That isn't Dry Eye, is it?
It sounds contrary, but in fact, watery eyes are one of the common symptoms associated with Dry Eye. Although we use the term Dry Eye, this does not mean that the eyes feel dry all the time.  We are referring to an issue with the tear layer that covers the surface of the eye.  This film protects the surface tissues and the lubrication of the eye, and helps in achieving clear vision.  Due to soreness and irritation associated with Dry Eye, the eyes react by producing reflex tears. These tears are different from normal tears. They are thinner and in a greater volume, and tend to “spill over” from the eyes.   The result is a Dry Eye issue and the experience of overly watery eyes!

Are there certain people that are more prone to having Dry Eyes?
The environment is a major contributor to Dry Eye issues. For example, here in Penticton, we are close to the northern end of the Sonoran desert.  We are in a “rain shadow”, so the air is very dry. We see people who spend many hours daily in front of a computer, who may have increased dry eye symptoms. Others are outside for long periods of time for work or recreation and the sun’s UV radiation can be very damaging.   Women more commonly have Dry Eyes than men; and the older we get, the more common dry eyes tend to be.  People with arthritis tend to have increased dry eye problems. Certain medications can cause dry eyes as a side effect. 

Do you have any recommendations for people to help them avoid Dry Eye issues?
It is important to regulate our environment so that it is not overly dry. Protecting our eyes from wind and any pollutants can be helpful. People who spend regular time in front of a computer screen may help their eyes by taking short, more frequent breaks from the screen.  If you are outdoors a lot, make sure you have a quality UV- protecting pair of sunglasses. It is important to stress that when Dry Eye symptoms are experienced, people should see their optometrist so that the problem does not persist, and is treated appropriately.