Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Medical School have found that smoking and multivitamins can contribute to the frustrating condition, while consuming caffeine may lessen symptoms. The findings were published in the September issue of Archives of Ophthalmology.
Dry eye syndrome is one of the most common complaints among middle-aged and older adults. In fact, more than 10 million Americans suffer from dry eyes, yet little is known about why people develop the condition.
"I look at this data as one step among many in getting to the underlying root of dry eye syndrome," Daniel Ebroon, MD, tells WebMD. "It's such a frustrating, chronic condition, and anything that uncovers the causes is positive." Ebroon is clinical instructor in the department of ophthalmology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.
In the study of 3,703 persons, investigators learned that a number of factors were associated with dry eye syndrome -- many of which can be controlled. Within the test group, 534 people had dry eye syndrome -- about 15%. The condition was slightly more common in women than in men.
Researchers found nearly a twofold increase of dry eye in smokers. In addition, past or current users of multivitamins and persons with a history of gout or thyroid disorder, arthritis, fractures, osteoporosis, heavy drinking, and diabetes were all more likely to have the condition.
According to Ebroon, the finding linking smoking to dry eye syndrome was "one of the most important parts of the study. We've known that smoking has a lot of detrimental effects on the eyes in a number of ways."
On the other hand, persons consuming caffeine and those with a higher total HDL cholesterol (the so-called "good cholesterol") ratio were less likely to have dry eye -- findings not reported in earlier studies. These findings, though, do not necessarily mean you should go out and drink 10 cups of coffee, or even stop taking multivitamins, because the study does not provide reasons for the associations.
"This is a good study, but it does not demonstrate cause and effect for the associated findings," John E. Sutphin, MD, a professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, tells WebMD. Still, Sutphin, who was not involved with the study, says he will make patients more aware of the associations, particularly smoking.
Sutphin points out that the study also does not classify symptoms that may be caused by eyelid disease, instead of just symptoms brought on by lack of tears. And of course, dry eye can often result from a number of other factors, including living in a hot, dry, or windy climate, or working in an air-conditioned environment.
Data also revealed that symptoms of dry eye are common in the older population and affect one in five persons over age 80, and nearly one in 10 in people younger than 60 years. And the odds for dry eye increased 35% for each additional 10 years of age.
Left untreated, dry eyes can lead to other problems. Besides lubricating the eye, the tear film helps fight infection, provides nourishment, and creates a smooth surface on the cornea, keeping your vision clear.
Experts say that it is important to evaluate and treat dryness, not only for comfort, but also for your eye's health. Treatments for dry eye may include artificial tears, drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day, blinking frequently, and paying close attention to symptoms. It's best to work closely with your eye care provider to get the best relief.
Ebroon agrees, and adds: "Patients can always take a more active role in any condition. There's a lot that can be done to treat dry eye, so patients shouldn't feel frustrated. We have wonderful topical lubricants, and a product called punctal plug that can help relieve symptoms. My advice is to seek out help, because there are many things that can be done."