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Think about it for a minute: what does a car and your body have in common? Quite a lot, actually. One big similarity? Your car has a windshield; you have eyes. And, just as a car is equipped with wiper blades and fluid, so are your eyes.
Maybe you know how annoying it is when your car’s wiper fluid reservoir goes dry – just when you need it most. Well, our eyes always need their version of wiper fluid – tears. Would you guess that over the course of a life, say, 80 years or so, our eyes produce about four to five gallons of tears?
That might seem like a lot, but each and every drop is precious. “If you think about it, you soon realize that the natural process of cleaning and protecting our eyes with tears is actually a marvelous engineering system,” says VSP network doctor Jimmy Bartlett, O.D. He’s an optometry professor at the University of Alabama. Alluding to the wiper fluid comparison, Dr. Bartlett says, “ Both systems use a fluid to wash the surface clean, and both use a wiper — which happens to be the eyelid.
“Each time we blink, we sweep a little bit of fluid across the eye, which acts to wash away debris such as dust and small particles. But the fluid also contains substances to neutralize microbes —bacteria and viruses — that can gather on the eye’s surface.”
By now you’re probably starting to understand the importance of the eye’s natural fluid system. So what happens when there isn’t enough “wiper fluid” to go around?
Dr. Bartlett says you could be in for a painful, and even potentially sight damaging problem. It’s called dry eye syndrome, and with it, the tear ducts simply don’t produce enough fluid. And, the condition seems to be affecting more and more people. “It’s very common in the U.S. today,” says the 26-year eyecare veteran. “The latest research shows that dry eye syndrome currently affects more than 25 million Americans. This condition can be triggered by everything from dust to low humidity. In some cases, wearing your contact lenses improperly or for too long can also result in dry eye syndrome.
“There also has been a lot of data in recent years to show that the disorder is prevalent among older, post-menopausal women, especially those with arthritis, which often tends to exacerbate dry eye.”
While dry eye syndrome normally has to go unchecked for a long time before vision damage can happen, it’s nothing to toy around with or take lightly. That burning and gritty sensation is something a dry eye sufferer should heed, Dr. Bartlett says. “The most important thing is that yearly eye checkup,” he concludes. “Between exams, if you start to experience a dry or gritty feeling in your eyes, be sure to call the doctor. These days, a routine eye exam will detect the condition, and the doctor can usually prescribe over-the-counter or prescription products designed to provide the fluids you need.”