Common Eye Problems
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When you consider which subjects are taught in our schools, it is not surprising that most people know very little about eye health or how to take care of their vision. Even in classes on human health and development, typically taught in junior high or high school in the United States, very little time and resources are devoted to the kinds of eye health problems people may experience in life. In these classes we are lucky to even be shown a drawing or two of the anatomy of the eye, or to receive a vision screening.
We tend to leave these issues to eye doctors, which would be fine if we would only visit them regularly and get complete eye exams. But we don't. In fact, we don't even visit an eye doctor when we experience common eye problems. We hope that the problems will go away on their own, or that we can diagnose and treat them for ourselves. What we don't seem to realize is that we don't have the expertise of an eye doctor, and we risk suffering longer and needlessly when a problem occurs.
Here are some examples of common eye problems that we sometimes neglect, in hopes that they will go away:
Blepharitis is a very common eye problem that produces red eyes, itchy eyes, swollen eyelids, tearing, and a crusty discharge that appears around the eyes and on the eyelashes. You can feel a burning sensation in your eyes with blepharitis, plus a feeling that something is in your eye. (This is called a foreign body sensation.) Light sensitivity, also called photophobia, is another symptom.
Blepharitis is actually an eyelid inflammation, and it can occur in just one eye, though it is usually in both eyes. If it is in just one eye, it could spread to the other if, for example, you wipe your eyes with a cloth or tissue and spread the bacteria that caused the blepharitis in the first place.
There are two kinds of blepharitis: anterior blepharitis, which occurs on the outside of the eyelid, in the front where the eyelashes grow; and posterior blepharitis, which happens to the inner eyelid. Anterior blepharitis can result from dandruff on your scalp, from staphylococcus bacteria or other bacteria, or from a virus. Posterior blepharitis has to do with a reduction in secretions from the meibomian gland or in an oilier type of secretions coming from that gland. Rosacea blepharitis is another type of posterior blepharitis and is a kind of ocular rosacea that is linked to problems in the skin's sebaceous glands. You may be genetically predisposed to this kind of blepharitis, or it can be caused by too much sun exposure.
Eyelid inflammation is definitely uncomfortable, but various types of eye drops can help your eyes feel better. You'll also need to start a special cleansing regimen, and your eye doctor will recommend a particular method of cleaning your eyelids and eyelashes, as well as a special cleanser.
Another type of eyelid inflammation is pink eye. In addition to colds, flu, and lice, pink eye (the medical term is conjunctivitis) is considered a major school enemy. The problem is that pink eye tends to pop up in children again and again, because let's face it: kids just don't clean themselves the way we would like, and they aren't careful about avoiding contact with other children.
Pink eye symptoms include itchiness, pink or red eyes, a watery discharge, or a thick discharge.
Pink eye comes in three main types:
Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by exposure to something that irritates the eyes, usually an eye allergen such as pollen or smoke, but it can also be a chemical irritant such as sunblock lotion. Antihistamine eye drops may help the eyes stop their reaction to the irritant, as well as lubricate the eyes and make them feel better, but the only sure-fire, long-term treatment is to remove the cause of the eye allergy. In fact, the possibility of giving your child allergic conjunctivitis is one great reason to stop smoking.
Bacterial conjunctivisurfaces at school. The bacteria can be on school desks and tables, as well as crayons, pencils, notebooks, faucets, light switches, lunchboxes, and clothing. A child may even come into contact with another kid's pink eye, then rub histis is caused by bacteria, which kids are constantly picking up from own eye, and voila, now he has a case of bacterial conjunctivitis himself. Keep in mind, too, that those play areas that are filled with plastic balls are great places to get this contagious kind of pink eye, since it is very difficult to keep those little balls clean. It depends on the actual bacteria that's causing the conjunctivitis, but generally an antibiotic eye drop, which your eye doctor must prescribe, will help clear up this kind of pink eye.
Viral conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, so unfortunately it won't respond to antibiotics. As with bacterial conjunctivitis, it is very contagious, and it spreads quickly among children in a classroom, at a playground, or in a daycare center. It spreads not only through touch but even more rapidly through sneezing and coughing. Viral conjunctivitis usually goes away on its own in about five days, or maybe up to two weeks. Eye drops and decongestants can help your child feel better in the meantime.
If you see your child's pink eye symptoms go away, don't assume he won't get it again, because unless you teach him good hygiene (such as washing his hands frequently and covering his mouth when he sneezes), he will likely either give or get pink eye again soon from one of his friends or classmates.
A lot of the eye problems we've been describing so far in this article come under the heading of eye infections. They can happen to anyone, though some are preventable with good hygiene practices. One important thing to remember about having an eye infection is that it will likely go away faster if you wash your bedding and personal items, such as pillowcases, towels, and washcloths, after each use. Then you won't be re-infecting your eyes after each time you wipe them with a cloth or come into contact with your pillow.
Another important thing to know about an eye infection is that you likely will need help in eliminating it, and it's a good idea to see an eye doctor as soon as you notice that something is wrong. Why suffer more than you have to?
Eye allergies are very common, too. Generally they are caused by exposure to something in your environment that irritates your eye tissues, to the point that your eyes become red and itchy. Watery eyes are another symptom of eye allergies, and, conversely, so are dry eyes. More symptoms are burning eyes, puffy and swollen eyes, and scratchiness.
Also called ocular allergies, these conditions are caused by your body's overreaction to dust, dust mites, mold spores, pollen, pet dander, and horse hair (which, by the way, is a large component of plaster found in old houses), among other things.
To reduce your eye allergy symptoms, simply figure out what's causing them and then avoid it. So for example, if it's pollens, then stay inside when pollen counts are particularly high. You can look on the Internet for pollen maps that show when pollen from trees and grasses are at elevated levels. If the problem is mold in your house, then clean it thoroughly with a bleach solution, and get a dehumidifier to reduce the humidity indoors, since humid surfaces are ideal for mold growth.
You can pin down the causes of your particular eye allergies in the same way that you can do this for other allergies you may have: by testing from an allergy doctor or allergist.
Another common eye problem is dry eye syndrome, which really just means chronically dry eyes. This is a highly age-related eye problem, because as we age our body has trouble producing sufficient fluids. Women are also more prone to dry eyes than men are.
Often, people with dry eye syndrome try to solve it themselves with over-the-counter eye drops. The problem with choosing your own eye drops is, you might not choose the right product that's really going to help. Many eye drops will provide temporary relief, but if you use eye drops and then 20 minutes later your eyes feel dry again, are they really helping you? You need eye drops that are going to stick around and soothe your eyes for hours on end, to give the surface of your dry eyes a chance to heal.
Some people have dry eyes that are so severe that they need something more than over-the-counter eye drops. For these people, prescription eye drops may work better, or they may even need a prescription eye ointment or gel. Other possible treatments are punctal plugs, which are inserted into your tear ducts and are designed to prevent your natural tears from draining away too fast. This is also called punctal occlusion. Surgical punctal occlusion may be necessary if your dry eye syndrome is extra serious and you can't tolerate the temporary punctal plugs.
One interesting thing about dry eye syndrome is that watery eyes can be a symptom of it. When our eyes are uncomfortable or irritated, as can happen with dry eyes, they may produce more tears in order to compensate. So if you find your eyes are watering a lot, think about not only allergies as a cause, but also dry eyes.
Eye floaters seem to occur a lot in our population. Some people barely notice them, or they may notice them only at certain times, such as when looking at a light-colored wall or a featureless sky. Others see floaters constantly and are very bothered and upset by them.
Still other people may see floaters in the eye mostly upon waking up. They do tend to appear more upon waking, perhaps because (says one theory) as we sleep, the weight of the vitreous gel in the back of the eye causes bits of it to collapse into the more liquid areas of vitreous fluid and float around. We see the shadows of these floating bits since they are situated between the retina in the back of the eye and the light coming into the eye. There are other causes of eye floaters, as well, and they include vitreous detachments resulting from severe myopia, cataract removal, diabetes, and inflammation.
Some floaters will go away with time, but others can be very persistent and difficult to live with. A vitrectomy may help clear them away, but that depends on a lot of factors.
It's important to visit an eye doctor if you notice a whole bunch of floaters coming on at once, because this may mean a retinal detachment, and you need immediate treatment in order to preserve your vision.
Like eye floaters, eye twitching seems to bother some people a lot and other people hardly at all. Just to be clear: we're talking here about an eyelid twitch, not an actual eye twitch. It's a tiny movement in either your upper or your lower eyelid that may seem much larger when you feel it, and it may even make you feel self-conscious, because you think everyone else is noticing it. But really an eye twitch is so small that you may not even be able to see it in the mirror, unless it's right on the very surface of your eyelid.
Why does your eye twitch? Normally it's a reaction to stress. Maybe you're overworked and worried, or nervous about some difficult challenge that's looming ahead of you. Some people report that their eye twitches when they have to give a speech or sales pitch. Another cause is a lack of sleep, though it is unclear as to exactly why this lack of rest would produce an eye twitch. You may be interested to know that Botox is sometimes used to counteract eye twitching, though other muscle-relaxant remedies are available as well. It's best to save these treatments for severe eye twitching, because they can have side effects such as producing a droopy eyelid.
Ocular migraine is an interesting set of visual phenomena that have to do with a sudden change in blood flow to the tissues of the brain. Don't confuse it with a migraine headache, which is a very debilitating pain that can also produce nausea. An ocular migraine normally isn't associated with pain at all. Instead, there are visual symptoms such as a blind spot that might appear in the center part of your eye. This can be pretty scary if you've never experienced it, and some people liken it to a retinal detachment. Other ocular migraine symptoms include a jagged line and bright, flashy lights appearing in your visual field.
Since an ocular migraine produces such potentially dramatic symptoms, people can get a little freaked out by it and worry that their vision may be in trouble. That may or may not be true. An eye doctor can help you sort out the symptoms and figure out whether you have an eye problem or whether you should be referred to a neurologist or other migraine specialist, in case the problem's origin is in the brain instead.
Blood in the eye is another scary topic. A subconjunctival hemorrhage is bleeding in the eye caused by one or more broken blood vessels in the conjunctiva, which is the inner lining of both eyelids as well as the clear tissue covering the white of the eye. You may see just a little spot of blood there (by looking in a mirror), or it may be large.
The cause of a subconjunctival hemorrhage is usually some type of trauma that broke the blood vessel. Vomiting is a common cause, and so are sneezing and coughing. If you rub your eye too hard, that might cause it, and so might weight lifting. This kind of hemorrhage can also result from weakening of the walls of the eye's blood vessels, perhaps from a viral or bacterial infection. And eye surgery (such as cataract surgery) can cause it.
Finally, a stye is something almost everyone gets at least once in their lifetime. Basically, a stye is just an oil gland at one of the edges of your eyelid that has become infected with bacteria. Children often get styes because they like to stick their fingers in their nose, where a lot of stye-causing bacteria are present. If they rub their eye afterward, then a stye may develop.
Often described as a pimple on the eye, a stye may be painful and red and can swell up a bit. Like other pimples, a stye will eventually reach a maximum size and then open, drain, and heal. It will take a few days, but you can speed up matters by soaking a washcloth in very warm water and holding it against the stye for a few minutes at a time. If you or your children are prone to having styes pretty often, your eye doctor might want to prescribe a topical antibiotic to discourage the formation of a new stye.
It is foolish to just "wait and see" when we have these kinds of eye problems, because an eye doctor can treat them and help us to feel better (and see better) in a short period of time. So don't put off going to the eye doctor for regular eye exams and also to take care of these eye health and vision issues that pop up from time to time.
For more information on these and other eye conditions, visit AllAboutVision.com's Consumer Guide to Eye Problems & Diseases.