If your eyes are feeling scratchy or itchy, or you’re experiencing light sensitivity or blurred vision, you could have a condition called dry eye disease.

For some people, this condition could be little more than a nuisance, while for others, if left untreated, it could lead to more serious challenges, including inflammation, infections, abrasions or even ulcers of the cornea and potentially vision loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Whether your symptoms are minor or major, being diagnosed with an eye disease can be scary for anyone. Read on to learn more about what dry eye disease is, who’s most at risk, and what action to take if you think you might have this condition.  

What is dry eye disease?

Dry eye disease occurs when a person either doesn’t have enough tears, or doesn’t have enough quality tears to keep their eyes moist and lubricated, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). More than 16 million Americans have dry eye disease, says the National Eye Institute, which lists the following symptoms associated with the condition:

  • A scratchy sensation
  • Stinging or burning feeling
  • Redness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision

Who gets dry eye disease?

Anyone can get dry eye disease. But those who are more at risk, according to the Mayo Clinic, include adults older than 50; women; people with a history of wearing contact lenses or having refractive surgery; and people who eat a diet that doesn’t include enough vitamin A (which is found in liver, broccoli and carrots) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, walnuts and vegetable oil).

In addition, UConn Health notes that certain environmental factors could play a role in dry eye disease, such as spending time in dry, smoky or windy environments, or staring at a computer screen for extended periods of time. Certain medical conditions and medications could also increase the risk for dry eye disease.

Are there steps I can take to prevent dry eye disease?

By taking actions to protect your eyes, you could help avoid that itchy, scratchy feeling. Some ideas include:

  • Keep air moist by using a humidifier, and avoid using fans
  • Avoid being around smoke (and if you smoke, yourself, quit)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes outside; wrap-around glasses can also help minimize wind and pollution from impacting your eyes
  • Take frequent breaks from looking at computer screens
  • Use artificial tears to keep your eyes moist (talk to your optometrist or ophthalmologist about the best kind for your eyes)
  • Use warm compresses on your eyes to soothe and relieve them
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes foods rich in vitamin A (like leafy green vegetables, carrots and squash) and omega-3 fatty acids (like sardines, tuna, trout, salmon, anchovies and flaxseeds); or take supplements such as fish oil or flaxseed oil

What do I do if I think I have dry eye disease?

If you’re struggling with your vision, or are uncomfortable with the way your eyes feel or look, make an appointment with an ophthalmologist or optometrist. They can examine your eyes and your eyelids and evaluate the quality of your tears in order to diagnose dry eye disease. If you do have this condition, there are a number of steps your doctor could recommend, such as over-the-counter eye drops, prescription eye drops, warm compresses and other remedies.

Dry eye disease can be distracting and annoying at best; at worst, it could threaten the way you see the world. Whatever the case, it’s important to take it seriously and ask for help. Vision, like so many aspects of our health, is something that many of us take for granted, until we worry that it could change. Early intervention could help your eyes, and your vision for decades to come.