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What is Xerophthalmia?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Xerophthalmia is a general medical term for dry eye. Decreased moisture and tear production is a very common ailment that can be caused by eye injuries, prescription drug use, age-related disorders, and certain autoimmune conditions. Xerophthalmia is usually accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms of burning, itching, and light sensitivity. Some people experience blurry vision or lose their sight altogether if they do not seek medical care. Treatment for xerophthalmia depends on the underlying cause, but most people are able to find relief with eye drops or prescription topical or oral medications.

A person who has an acute case of xerophthalmia that comes on within a matter of hours may have suffered a burn, poke, or scratch. While an injury usually causes increased tears immediately following the incident, it can eventually exhaust tear production and leave the eye dry, red, and irritated. Dryness in one or both eyes can also be a side effect of antihistamines, birth control pills, or several other prescription medications. Acute dry eye symptoms are common in older adults, as tear ducts gradually become less effective at supplying the eyes with adequate moisture.

A common cause of chronic xerophthalmia in many parts of the world is vitamin A deficiency. Dietary vitamin A is absorbed by the body and used to strengthen bones and skin, preserve teeth, and regenerate pigments in the retinas of the eyes. People who do not ingest enough vitamin A are at risk of many health problems, including xerophthalmia and quickly worsening vision problems.

An autoimmune disorder called Sjogren syndrome can also affect tear production. The condition occurs when the immune system starts to attack the salivary glands, tear ducts, and mucous membranes in the body. People experience chronic, painful dry eye and dry mouth, among other symptoms.

Mild or occasional xerophthalmia can usually be treated at home with over-the-counter artificial tears. If problems become chronic and painful, however, a person should schedule an appointment with an eye doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis and learn about different treatment options. A physical exam and laboratory tear and blood analysis can help a doctor determine the underlying cause of dry eyes. Medicated eye drops, antibiotics, and topical ointments are commonly prescribed to ease chronic symptoms and repair damage to the tear ducts.

If xerophthalmia continues to worsen despite medical care, an eye doctor can consider a clinical procedure called punctal occlusion. He or she inserts a small piece of silicone into the corner of an eye to plug the tear duct. The procedure prevents the duct from draining moisture from the eyes into the sinuses, which increases the amount of available tears. Rarely, invasive surgery to permanently close ducts is performed. Punctal occlusion and surgery have very high success rates, and most people are able to regain vision and eye comfort within a few weeks.

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