Doctors seeing spike in dry eye cases point to pandemic lifestyle changes

BOSTON — For some it’s a nuisance and for others, it’s nearly debilitating. But doctors tell Boston 25 News, dry eye is becoming a bigger problem for more people as the pandemic wears on.

“There’s definitely been an increase since people are working from home and wearing masks and things like that,” said ophthalmologist Dr. Jason Brenner of Boston Vision.

He says he’s seeing more patients with blepharitis, which is inflammation of the eyelids. He believes lifestyle changes associates with the pandemic are a big factor.

Belmont psychologist Laura Duncan agrees. She’s a longtime patient, but says she has seen a change recently.

“It’s definitely gotten worse in the last year. And I think that’s related to screen time,” Duncan said. “It aggravates it a lot.” She added, “Your eyes are constantly feeling irritated, and almost sticky and gritty.”

Dr. Brenner says added screen time is adding to dry eye symptoms like Duncan’s. “Your blink rate goes down, because you’re very focused on the screen. And when that happens, you’re not spreading tears over the surface of the eye,” he explains.

THE ROLE OF MASKS

Dr. Brenner says there are a couple of theories about the role masks are playing now too.

“When you exhale, air normally goes straight away from you. And with mask-wear it often is redirected up past your eyes. So that air movement is similar to an air conditioner blowing or a fan blowing on your eyes,” Brenner said.

Another theory: researchers think masks can pull down on your lower eyelids, limiting how much they spread those tears.

A lack of oil or disruption of proteins on the surface on your eye can also cause problems. Dr. Brenner says if any of these things are out of balance, patients start having symptoms, which include fluctuating blurry vision, stinging or burning in the eyes. He says other symptoms include a feeling like there’s sand or grit in your eye, as Duncan mentioned, and light sensitivity.

Symptoms of dry eye include: fluctuating blurry vision, stinging or burning, feeling of sand or grit and light sensitivity.

Dr. Brenner says he’s seeing more young patients coming in now, but women are particularly prone to dry eyes as they get older. The condition can also be especially bad for contact lens wearers, though putting on your glasses for a break can help.

TIPS TO REDUCE RISK

Dr. Brenner offered tips to reduce your risk of developing dry eye:

1) Try a mask with a wire that fits tightly to reduce the air over your eyes

2) Place a humidifier around your desk to help with those stretches in front of the screen

3) Try over-the-counter artificial tears drops. Dr. Brenner said to avoid using drops with a preservative more than 4 times a day, which can exacerbate the problem. If you need them more often, it’s best to try single use drops without a preservative.

4) Take breaks from your screens: Set a timer for breaks every 10 to 20 minutes, looking away and blinking often

WHEN YOU SHOULD SEE A DOCTOR

Dr. Brenner says warm compresses may also help. If you’re still uncomfortable, he says it may be time to see a doctor.

In more severe cases, patients may need prescription medicine, special contacts, or tear-duct plugs. He says patients with severe disease have even seen some success with serum tears, which are artificial tears made out of your own blood!

“It sounds weird, but we take all the healing proteins that are in your blood that help regulate inflammation, and we put them on the eye and that works really well,” Dr. Brenner explained.

Laura Duncan said the therapy is actually helping her. “I think a lot of people suffer with it, without realizing there are things to try,” Duncan said. “I would just encourage people to get help.”

“I’ve had people that say they’re completely debilitated, they can’t do their job. There are even case reports of people developing depression and suicide and things like that. So, you know, although most people it’s on the mild side, for some people, it really can be a big problem,” Dr. Brenner said. He said with the amount of research in the works right now, he’s hopeful new treatments are on the horizon.

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