About a month ago, I was violently roused from a deep sleep by a pain that, once imagined as “eyeball-eating, microscopic slug beetles rolling across the eyeball, defecating bits of ground glass,” was hard to think of as anything else. Certainly nothing as mundane as “dry eyes.”
I told my doctor I was pretty sure I had pink-eye. In truth, I was pretty sure the glass-pooping dung beetles were going to set the shards on fire and do a frenzied mating dance on the backs of my eyelids the next night, but I try to maintain my public image as a sane person who is not a hypochondriac, or someone who thinks they earned their medical degree from the University of Google. (Ed. note: Resist all temptation to search for “eyelash mites.”) She gave me the Gentamicin drops I was sure would knock out conjunctivitis in a few days, at most.
And I had a few days’ relief. A week, almost.
And then, each night – always between 3:00 AM and 4:30 AM – I woke with intense pain in my right eye. Always the right. Never the left. When I say “intense,” let me clarify: worse than childbirth. Worse than a broken ankle. Not as long-lasting as either, nor as debilitating as a broken bone, but terrifyingly intense.
Imagine someone touching a hot match tip to your eyeball, just when you’re in the middle of a good dream. You wake up, clutching your eye – it’s tender to the lightest touch. You can’t just get back to sleep. You have to look. You have to be sure that a nest of spiders hasn’t hatched in there, only to be crawling down your face – long hair is the enemy, here. You can’t open your eye in the light. You pry it open with your fingers, expecting to see tiny, wriggling, pointy-clawed beetle legs poking out from your clenched eyelids. You expect to see blood dripping from your eye instead of tears. There are plenty of tears, and redness, and pain. But the pain begins to subside a little. You find a clean washcloth and make a warm compress of it. You’re still only barely awake and wish that you could sleep. You gently try to wipe away what the rational part of your brain says is surely just a stray eyelash, a bit of debris, not really ground glass. And it seems to work. After about an hour, the pain’s nearly gone. By dawn, you could almost forget it happened – the pain has vanished completely.
You wonder if the eyeball-munching, glass-pooping, hell-beetle lives up in your brain during the day. Maybe it’s an angry, too-long neglected part of your imagination. It occurs to you that it knows your dreams and chooses its moments for dramatic effect. You begin to fear sleep.
The ads for “dry eye” medications make it sound like “minor discomfort.” Minor discomfort doesn’t drive people to the eye doctor at 8:30 AM on a Saturday, convinced they have worms or bugs or broken glass or tiny shards of metal wiggling in their eyeballs. “Minor discomfort” drives them to blink more often, perhaps, or put a couple of cucumber slices on their eyelids.
The good news is, the eye doctor agreed to see me at 8:50 AM on a Saturday morning – I couldn’t take it anymore, and showed up on his doorstep. He tried to convince me to come back on Monday, but one look at my expression convinced him to see me immediately. The better news is, I have really healthy eyes. I mean really healthy. Remarkably so. They’re just dry.
What is “dry”? My optometrist explained that when we blink, it normally takes about 10 seconds for that tear to break apart on the surface of the eye. In my case, it’s barely 4 seconds. The doctor said it’s due to a little blepharitis, “a common eye condition characterized by often chronic inflammation of the eyelid, generally the part where eyelashes grow. It generally presents when very small oil glands near the base of the eyelashes don’t function properly, resulting in inflamed, irritated, itchy, and reddened eyelids.” There are some 75 of these oil glands – meibomian glands – in the eyelids of each eye, and the oil they produce creates a film, when we blink, that helps to prevent tear fluid from evaporating too quickly.
That all sounds very benign, doesn’t it? Not at all like the frenzied, glass-pooping fire beetles I’d imagined at 3:00 AM. I wonder how much more effective those eye medication ads would be, if they depicted the horrifying truth instead of such soothing, calm, sterile chats with the nice lady doctor who is also a sufferer of “dry eye”?
“Holy effing gingersnaps, Doc, there are evil, eyeball-munching, glass-pooping, fire-breathing BUGS in my eye! GET THEM OUT!”
“Oh, relax, you’re just suffering a mild form of a common disease known as ‘dry eye’…”
Fortunately, there’s no infection – pretty much proactively saw to that with the Gentamicin. There’s little to no risk of damage to the eyes or vision. Treatment is fairly simple:
- Daily eyelid “scrubs” with “No More Tears” baby shampoo. Basically, in the shower, put some baby shampoo onto closed eyelids and massage them for a couple of minutes, taking care to lift the eyelashes and clean the edges of he lid as best as possible without opening the eyes.
- Warm compresses with a Bruder mask.
- A simple eye mask for sleeping (no fancy goggles needed – just something to help keep them protected from the A/C airflow or debris while sleeping, as we suspect I’m not sleeping with my eyelids fully closed)
- Systane gel drops.
We were both in agreement that where OTC solutions were as effective as pricier meds, it was smart to try the low-tech, inexpensive approaches first. I’m to follow up in a couple of weeks, and I’m pretty confident – having seen the innards of my very healthy eyes on a large computer monitor – that this will take care of things. The best news, of course, is that there are no evil, eyeball-munching, glass-pooping alien parasites hatching under my eyelids. I cannot tell you how happy that makes me.
According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some of the factors that make it more likely that you’ll experience dry eyes:
- Being older than 50. Tear production tends to diminish as you get older. Dry eyes are common in people over 50.
- Being a woman. A lack of tears is more common in women, especially if they experience hormonal changes due to pregnancy, using birth control pills or menopause.
- Eating a diet that is low in vitamin A, which is found in liver, carrots and broccoli, or low in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, walnuts and vegetable oils
- Wearing contact lenses
Well, my diet’s fine and I no longer wear contact lenses. I just figured any woman over 50 is all cried out by now – it never even occurred to me that it could be an actual medical condition!
[UPDATE 8/16/15: None of the measures suggested by the doctor have proven to be an “overnight cure.” They weren’t expected to be, but at 4:24 AM the pain that woke me actually seemed worse, and a mild irritation persisted throughout the day. Ordered a sleep mask – http://amzn.to/1Wy2tPi – Dream Essentials Escape. If nothing else, it’s cheaper than blackout curtains!]
[UPDATE 8/17/15: Slept through the night! Two things may have helped: Drinking lots of fluids, including Gatorade, throughout the day, and this – http://amzn.to/1Wy1lvl – which I fastened around my neck to prevent sleeping on my side. I picked that up in the airport about a year ago, and it is the softest, comfiest travel pillow! It also works to block out noise a bit, if you position it just right. I now suspect the pain may come from sleeping with my face jammed into the pillow, with my eye partially open to rub against the pillowcase. How I’ve made it through my life so far without doing that, I don’t know. And so far, this is just a theory – one restful night proves nothing. Eyes are sort of “normally” dry and the right one’s a bit tender – but no worse than it was all day yesterday.]
[UPDATE 8/19/15: Two nights now without pain! Got the Dream Essentials Escape mask yesterday. Some of the reviews on Amazon mentioned it being “heavy” – that’s a load of nonsense. It is 29g – 1 oz. Very lightweight, about the same as a letter. It has a fuzzy, soft exterior and a padded foam interior with hollowed areas over the eyes, so nothing touches your eyelids while you sleep. It does seem to prevent tears from evaporating too quickly, though it’s not as “air tight” as sleep goggles would be. There’s a satin-like padding around the nose to help block light, which it does superbly. There’s a little light leakage if you sleep on your side (though it’s not uncomfortable to roll over in it); also, in my case, it could rub against the eye if you roll onto your side and open your eye or it pushes your eyelid open a little. It’s still probably best if you sleep on your back, or maybe try tightening the strap more than I wanted to do. The strap is adjustable with a Velcro closure. Some reviews suggest that if you have a smaller head, it may not fit as snugly, but this is not a problem for me. Finding women’s fashion hats that fit is a problem; this mask fitting my head is not. Click either of the images below for a larger version:
[UPDATE 8/21/15: Still no pain! I wake up with noticeably dry eyes, but no pain! Two things I think help more than anything else – and I think this, because I’ve been doing them consistently – staying well hydrated (I’ve been drinking lots of iced tea, water, and Gatorade) and wearing that Escape mask. And not waking up every time my next door neighbor goes to the bathroom and turns on the light – priceless.)]
Latest posts by HollyJahangiri (see all)
- A Brand New Blog with a Fresh Perspective! - September 15, 2017
- If We Were Having Coffee, I’d Tell You to #WriteBravely… - August 12, 2017
- A Taste of Home for the Next Generation (Interview with Sapna Anu George) - August 9, 2017