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What Is Xerophthalmia?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 05, 2021

‌Xerophthalmia is a disease that causes dry eyes due to vitamin A deficiency. If it goes untreated, it can progress into night blindness or spots on your eyes. It can even damage the cornea of your eye and cause blindness.

This disease is rare in the U.S. It’s more commonly seen in developing countries, where people are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies. It can be treated with vitamin A supplements.

Causes of Xerophthalmia

Vitamin A, or retinol, is an essential nutrient. Its main function is to help maintain your eye health and vision. It also protects your vital organs, including your lungs and heart, and supports your immune system.

Your body can’t make its own vitamin A. You need to eat foods — like carrots and meat — or take supplements that are rich in vitamin A. Getting enough vitamin A is important for your health.

A lack of vitamin A in your diet may cause dry eyes, which is called xerophthalmia. 

Risk Factors of Xerophthalmia

‌Xerophthalmia can happen because of underlying conditions that cause vitamin A deficiency. It has the following risk factors:

Young age. Vitamin A deficiency is more common in infants and children. It can hinder a child’s growth, have negative effects on vital organs, and complicate other diseases or infections. If a child doesn’t get enough vitamin A as they are growing, it may cause xerophthalmia or childhood blindness.

Vitamin A deficiency can also occur in children due to diseases like measles and respiratory infections. Such infections increase the chances of xerophthalmia in children.

Severe xerophthalmia affects infants far more than adults. Children 3 to 6 years of age are at a higher risk of developing night blindness due to xerophthalmia.

Other factors. These are some other risk factors of xerophthalmia in children and adults, including: ‌

  • Poverty. People who live in poverty or can't afford proper meals are more likely to develop diseases like xeropthalmia.    
  • Lack of nutrition education. Those who don’t receive proper education about nutrition are usually unaware of the benefits of vitamin A. This can lead to a lower intake of vitamin A in their diet.
  • Malnutrition. Lack of proper nutrition may lead to vitamin A deficiency.  Severe malnutrition can result in dry eyes and may cause night blindness.
  • Other diseases. Diseases like pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease can cause vitamin A deficiency..
  • Liver problems. Chronic liver disease or liver cirrhosis can prevent vitamin A from being absorbed into the body. The resulting vitamin A deficiency may lead to xeropthalmia.
  • Chronic diarrhea. People who have diarrhea repeatedly are at an increased risk of xeropthalmia due to vitamin A depletion.
  • Alcoholism. Drinking excess alcohol may decrease the levels of vitamin A in your body.

Symptoms of Xerophthalmia

‌Xerophthalmia is a progressive disease that begins with dry eyes and may keep getting worse. These are the typical symptoms of xerophthalmia:‌

  • Drying and wrinkling of the outer layer of your eye, or conjunctiva
  • Night blindness, an eye disease in which you can’t see in dim light
  • Ulcers or scars on your cornea
  • Bitot’s spots, or white spots on your conjunctiva
  • Softening of your cornea

‌Xerophthalmia is a preventable disease that can be easily treated. But in extreme cases, it can cause permanent blindness.

Diagnosis of Xerophthalmia

‌If you have obvious symptoms like dry eyes, talk to your doctor. They may physically examine you and check your symptoms and history. They may ask you questions about your diet.

Your doctor may also order a blood test to check the vitamin A levels in your body. If you have severe xerophthalmia or night blindness, your doctor may start your treatment right away.

Treatment of Xerophthalmia

‌The main treatment for xerophthalmia is vitamin A therapy or supplementation. It can be given orally or by injection. Your doctor may also give you other medications like antibiotics to prevent eye infections.

Vitamin A therapy is used to treat xerophthalmia in adults and children. The dose depends on your age and the severity of your xerophthalmia.

Your doctor may ask you to eat more yellow-colored fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene. They may also suggest that you add green leafy vegetables, meat, and dairy to your diet. If your xerophthalmia is due to other factors, your doctor can work with you to treat the underlying cause.

Prevention of Xerophthalmia

‌Xerophthalmia can be prevented with vitamin A supplements. Increasing the levels of vitamin A in your diet can also help prevent this disease. Some foods that are rich in vitamin A that you can easily add to your meals include:‌

  • Fish liver or fish oil
  • Chicken
  • Meat like beef
  • Eggs
  • Carrots
  • Lemons
  • Mangos
  • Yams
  • Dairy or milk products
  • Green vegetables

‌Adding these vitamin A-rich foods to your diet will not only help to prevent xerophthalmia but may also help you to maintain your overall health.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Eye: “Xerophthalmia—a potential epidemic on our doorstep?”

‌Feroze, K., Kaufman E. Xerophthalmia, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition: “Prevalence of Vitamin A Deficiency in South Asia: Causes, Outcomes, and Possible Remedies.”

‌MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES: “Xerophthalmia (vitamin A deficiency).”

‌World Health Organization: “Xerophthalmia and night blindness for the assessment of clinical vitamin A deficiency in individuals and populations.”

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