The word xerophthalmia comes from two Greek words that together spell out “dry eyes” – hence another name for the disorder being “dry eye syndrome”.
Whilst the word is used to describe exactly that condition of dry eyes, those in the optical profession use the term medically to cover a range of things that can go wrong with the eyes when a person suffers from vitamin A deficiency affecting the eyes.
So then – xerophthalmia can be:
• Dry eye syndrome in people without any other health problems, or
• A disorder involving vitamin A deficiency
Dry Eye Syndrome
Although dry eyes are one of the symptoms of many eye diseases, people who exhibit normal health and are well nourished can have dry eye syndrome.
The old saying “old age doesn’t come by itself” is certainly true, with dry eyes being one of those things that happen with less tears being produced as you get older. Tears are necessary to keep the eye surfaces lubricated, and keep them clean and free from infection.
Dry eyes could be a sign of something wrong medically such as hormonal imbalance, allergic reaction or certain types of infection.
They can also be initiated by a variety of situations such as pollution, very dry air and the “big one” – too much time staring at a computer! When working at a computer people often only blink every 10 or so seconds when they should be doing so every 4 to 5 seconds.
In rare cases dry eyes may be a symptom of something more serious such as rheumatoid arthritis, in which case the underlying condition needs to be treated as well as dry eyes.
Symptoms include the cornea becoming thicker (a reaction to prevent damage) and related vision impairment.
Dry eyes should not be ignored!
Without diagnosis and effective treatment there is the possibility of ulcers appearing on the cornea and infections taking hold in the general eye area.
Treatment is fairly straightforward, with drops – artificial tears – being prescribed to maintain a moist environment.
If the condition is severe, then corticosteroid ointments may be prescribed or in the worst of cases, little plugs can be inserted into the duct that drains away the tears, to stop them draining away too much (the reverse procedure to opening up the ducts when tears do not drain away).
At The Eye Practice we specialise in dry eyes.
Vitamin A deficiency
In the western world dry eyes as a symptom of vitamin A deficiency is fortunately rare. In the developing countries however, malnutrition and lack of medical intervention means that the condition of “dry eye syndrome” can lead to blindness.
It has been estimated that over 250 million children in the world are deficient in Vitamin A or have dietary intake less than required for normal health.
Affecting children up to the age of 10, cases are found in many parts of Africa and Asia. At first thought to possibly be a congenital defect, the link between the development of severe dry eyes and vitamin A deficiency is one of relatively recent knowledge considering the initial research in the “vital amine” was in the early 1900s.
Symptoms of vitamin A deficiency include:
• “Night blindness” – inability to see in the dark normally
• Dry skin and hair
• Broken fingernails
• Becoming more prone to infections
Treatment of vitamin A deficiency is fairly obvious of course – increase the intake of vitamin A – but by how much and how often?
Whilst a diet of vitamin A rich foods or supplements can be recommended, it is often essential that an immediate response to the deficiency be administered. Daily dosage rates vary according to the age and weight of a child, but in severe cases of malnutrition a dose of 60,000 micrograms has the immediate effect needed.