Dry eyes might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about menopause. With all of the other changes that menopause brings, eye discomfort seems like a pretty insignificant detail. But we’re talking about your sight here – even apparently minor issues should be treated seriously, and eye dryness is no different.
Increased Risks of Dry Eyes
Dry eye is already a relatively common problem. There’s a long, long list of possible causes. Allergies, long stretches of computer work, and medication can all leave you with dry eyes, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can safely add menopause to that list. Menopause is generally a midlife change, usually beginning during a woman’s 40s or 50s. It’s a transition that signals the end of a woman’s reproductive abilities and also affects other aspects of life.
Well-known symptoms such as hot flashes, migraines, and changes to sex-drive all result from a single overarching process: the body ceasing to produce sex hormones. During menopause, hormone levels can fluctuate wildly, leading to mood changes and similar experiences, while other symptoms, especially those seen post-menopause, are attributable to permanently low hormone counts.
It’s not entirely clear which of these categories dry eye falls into. Perimenopausal (the period in which some menopause symptoms are experienced, but before a woman’s final menstrual period) and menopausal women are both extremely likely to encounter the problem, with about 61 percent suffering from dry eye.
Out of those, only a relatively small percentage realize the root of the issue. Menopause isn’t exactly an obvious culprit, and dry eye can sometimes be lost in the midst of other, often more pressing symptoms. It’s best to understand what exactly dry eye is, and how to know when exactly you’re experiencing it.
Dry Eye 101
In a nutshell, dry eye is exactly what it sounds like: a condition marked by dry, often itchy or irritated eyes, caused by an inability to produce tears sufficiently or normally. Other signs that you may be suffering from it include redness, a gritty or sandy feeling in the eye, or a stringy discharge from the eye. Even more subtle symptoms include heavy eyelids, a decreased tolerance for computer work or tasks that require similar, near-field focus over a period of time, and discomfort while wearing contacts.
All of the above can be signs that you’re suffering from dry eye. If you’re at an age at which you may be perimenopausal or menopausal, then take some time to evaluate your eyes. If you simply notice yourself not being able to read comfortably for as long as you used to, or not being able to wear contacts for an entire day, then it may be time to get checked for dry eye.
Some people may also be tempted to simply ride their symptoms out, but by doing so, they’re putting themselves at risk for some of the more serious complications that can stem from untreated dry eye. First, dry eyes are more susceptible to infection and, as you can guess, eye infections can be vicious, hard to treat, and permanently damaging. Second, chronically dry corneas may scar over time, even thinning out and, in rare cases, perforating.
With that in mind, it’s best to start searching for treatment the moment you suspect you’re dealing with dry eye. Fortunately, there’s a wide range of options:
Handling Dry Eye
Even without going to a doctor, there’s plenty you can do to improve a case of dry eye. Most fixes are relatively straightforward, and can be highly effective. Replacing tears should be a bit of a no-brainer. You’ll be able to find plenty of over-the-counter eye drops, gel inserts, and ointments at a pharmacy that can help you get through the day comfortably.
Minimizing your exposure to factors that can exacerbate dry eye is also an excellent step to take. When out and about, wear wrap-around sunglasses to help slow the evaporation of tears. If you’re a smoker, then it may be time to kick the habit, as smoke can also aggravate a case of dry eye. Computer workers should take extra breaks during their days as long stretches of uninterrupted screen-gazing doesn’t do wonders for eye hydration. Humidifiers and dust filters can contribute to an eye-friendly atmosphere at home by adding moisturizing water to the air while removing irritants.
If you’re finding self-treatment inadequate, then the medical community can help. Prescription drugs exist that can increase quantity and quality of tears while reducing the inflammation that often accompanies dry eye. And while you may shy away from surgery, the most common surgical solution to dry eye involves placing a small plug in the lacrimal (tear generating) system to help conserve tears. It’s a relatively simple procedure, and a largely effective one.
However, if you believe your dry eye to me menopause-related, then you may be tempted to take a different approach to treatment.
Can Hormone Therapy Treat Dry Eye?
Hormone replacement therapy has a somewhat patterned reputation. HRT involves treatment with estrogen, progesterone, progestin, and sometimes with androgens as well. On one hand, HRT does have positive effects on some of the more difficult issues that come along with menopause, primarily sexual dysfunction. On the other hand, there’s some debate over exactly how safe it is. A major study in 2002 raised concerns that HRT might increase mortality under some conditions. However, more recent studies may have cleared the treatment once more. While scientific opinion now seems to be largely positive, critics of the treatment do continue to raise valid points about possible risks.
If you find yourself wondering if HRT can help with your dry eyes, then you may be disappointed. As we mentioned before, the hormonal cause of dry eye is nebulous, but it doesn’t seem to be a simple issue of low levels. And while some studies have shown promise in the use of HRT in treating dry eyes, that promise hasn’t been borne out in the field. Just the opposite, actually, as women receiving hormone treatments were actually found to be more at risk of experiencing symptoms of dry eye.