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Complications of Untreated Dry Eye Syndrome

Views: 3021
Reviewed by Nymark M, PhD on April 22, 2016

Dry eye syndrome (DES) is incredibly common. It happens when your eye produces insufficient tears, or when your tears evaporate too quickly, often because it has insufficient oil. As a result, your eyes will dry out very quickly, and they feel irritated, swollen, and red. Interestingly, it is very common for excessive tearing to occur at this point. However, because the quality of your tears isn’t good enough, this doesn’t alleviate the symptoms. The medical name for DES is keraconjunctivitis sicca.

Symptoms of DES

Most people only have mild dry eye syndrome, which means they often don’t experience discomfort until the end of the day. However, others experience quite severe symptoms, and this can significantly reduce their overall quality of life. In most cases, DES affects both eyes, and the common symptoms you can expect include:

  • Feeling like your eyes are dry, gritty, and sore, something that gets worse over the course of the day
  • Red, burning eyes
  • Noticing your eyes are stuck together in the morning when you wake up
  • Have blurry vision, which usually gets better when you blink
  • Watery eyes, which usually comes in episodes. This is your eye trying to produce more tears in order to remove the irritation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work.

DES Is Incredibly Common

DES is a very common affliction. It isn’t known exactly how many people suffer from it, because people don’t always report on their symptoms. What is known is that the condition becomes more common with age, particularly once people are over 60, and that it is also more common for women to develop it than men. It is believed that around one in every 13 people over the age of 50 will have at least some degree of DES, with numbers rising once they turn 60. Around 35% of people over the age of 65 are believed to experience at least mild DES symptoms.


DES isn’t serious, life threatening, or even vision threatening. It is, however, chronic and can be a very big annoyance. Luckily, there are quite a few things that can be done to make the situation better, including the use of artificial tears. While the condition can be quite painful, it does not generally worsen vision in any way. It does, however, need some treatment because untreated DES can lead to scarring of the surface of the eye, as well as visual impairment.

When to Go to the Doctor

If you believe you have DES, your first stop should be your optometrist or ophthalmologist. They will perform a number of checks on your eyes to rule out any underlying conditions. If something is found, they will refer you to a specialist. If your symptoms are severe, or start very suddenly, you should make an immediate appointment with your family physician. If you cannot make an appointment, then a trip to the Emergency Room may be needed.

Complications of Untreated DES

It is very rare for DES to be anything but very uncomfortable. However, just because something is rare doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Furthermore, the complications that can occur by not treating DES can be quite serious. Complications include:

#1 Conjunctivitis

The conjunctiva is the layer that covers the white part of your eye. This part can become inflamed if you leave DES untreated. Usually, conjunctivitis is mild and won’t need treatment. However, you may need some antibiotics or antiviral treatment to relieve the condition. Unfortunately, conjunctivitis can also become chronic, particularly if you suffer from infective conjunctivitis, which means it is caused by a virus or bacteria. It is also possible that you already suffer from allergic conjunctivitis, which is not contagious but rather an allergic reaction to allergens in your environment. If you have allergies and suffer from DES, you are also more likely to develop allergic conjunctivitis.

#2 Corneal inflammation

The cornea, which is the eye’s window and is a clear layer, can develop keratitis, which is a serious inflammation that can lead it to develop an ulcer. An ulcer on the cornea can permanently damage your sight. This usually happens only in very severe cases, but it is very dangerous. You will usually experience significant swelling and redness to the eye if you suffer from corneal inflammation. An inflammation is a normal response that the body’s immune system initiates in order to get rid of infections and injuries. When it happens in the eye, it will feel hot and painful. If you believe you have corneal inflammation, you must seek medical attention straight away. If your cornea does ulcerate, there is a chance that you will experience permanent loss of vision.

One of the bigger complications with DES, however, is that it is so common that people are ready to self-diagnose with it. This means that, if the symptoms of DES are actually caused by something else, possibly more serious, they miss it and don’t seek treatment. Any issue you have with your eye should be checked out by a professional, even if it is just to rule out serious conditions, including glaucoma. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you must also seek medical attention straight away by going to the Emergency Room:

  • Photophobia, which is an extreme light sensitivity
  • The eyes being very red and painful
  • A feeling of pressure on the eye, possibly accompanied by headaches, nausea, and vomiting
  • Your vision suddenly deteriorating
  • Seeing a halo in your peripheral vision

Generally speaking, DES is a condition that is harmless but uncomfortable, and one that you simply learn to live with. Some home remedies exist to make your eyes more comfortable, such as artificial tears and warm compresses. However, you should never just presume that you are fine, and any changes in your condition should be reported and monitored closely. After all, you only have one pair of eyes.

Resources and References:

Dry Eyes: Complications – Information on possible complications of dry eye. (Mayo Clinic)

Dry Eye Syndrome (Dry Eyes, Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca) – Information on dry eye syndrome. (Medicine Net)