Dry eyes during pregnancy are just one more physiologic side-effect of pregnancy. Resulting hormone fluctuations alter everything from the shape of your growing belly to changes in your mucous membranes and oil glands – including the meibomian glands responsible for secreting lipid/oil-based lubricant and the delicate membranes that protect and moisten your eye (called the sclera).
While most cases of dry eye can be treated with the use of over-the-counter eye drops (artificial tears), persistent dry eye that causes you continuing discomfort or pain is a sign you should schedule an appointment with your eye doctor. If you have developed dry eye syndrome, or your eyes have become overly inflamed, you are at risk for potential infection or more permanent damage to the sclera or retina.
If you have recently found out you are pregnant, we congratulate you. And, we also encourage you to schedule an appointment with your eye doctor where s/he can inform you about the multiple ways pregnancy can affect your eyes and visions. That way, you’ll know what to expect and will have a better idea of what is normal, and what is not.
What Is Dry Eye?
Almost everyone experiences dry eyes from time to time as the result of lack of sleep, dehydration, gazing at a screen for hours per day, or as the result of wearing contact lenses. Pregnancy is one of the most common causes of dry eye for women, occurring when hormone changes diminish the amount of moisture or lubrication produced by the meibomian glands that ring your inner-eyelids. Ironically, the same hormones that create excess oils that contribute to acne are responsible for the diminishment of lubrication for the eyes.
Dry eye is typically at its worst during the first to the end of the first trimester, after which most women experience some relief. For others, dry eyes may last longer into the pregnancy and may continue after the baby is born due to breastfeeding hormones. Women who wear contact lenses or who work on a computer may experience more severe side effects of dry eye. You may want to revert to wearing your glasses if you suffer from dry eye.
Usually, there are no lasting effects of dry eye, but occasionally a case of dry eye can turn into dry eye syndrome, requiring careful attention and treatment by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Symptoms of dry eyes during pregnancy
Symptoms of pregnancy-related dry eye include:
- Dry or scratchy eyes
- Burning or irritation
- Achy sensations in the eyeball
- A feeling of heaviness in the eyes
- Red eyes
- Light sensitivity (photophobia)
- Blurred vision (another common pregnancy side effect)
- Watery eyes (ironic, we know, but irritated eyes water. However, without the oil-based secretions produced by the meibomian glands, the water dries up more quickly)
You can start by using at-home treatments to see if they provide relief. If not, your eye doctor may opt to use prescription eye drops or other treatment alternatives to prevent dry eye syndrome from continuing.
Treatment for dry eyes
The first-round treatments for dry eyes, especially for those who have never been treated for it or other eye conditions in the past, include:
Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops
You can purchase OTC eye drops (or artificial tears) at any grocery store or pharmacy. We prefer brands such as Systane, Refresh, NanoTears, or any other brand that offers preservative-free solutions. Read ingredient lists carefully as eye drops with preservatives can cause further irritation to sensitive eyes, making your symptoms of dry eye even worse.
If you wear contacts, look for eye drops designed to provide dry eye relief for contact lens wearers. Contact your eye doctor for specific recommendations if you aren’t sure which brand(s) are best or safest for you.
Remember that artificial tears provide temporary relief, but they are not a cure. Persistent dry eye should always be evaluated by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Dry climates or conditioned air (hot or cold) can exacerbate eye dryness. Using a humidifier can help to increase the humidity in your living space, office, or bedroom and can help to prevent dryness.
Apply warm compresses
Pregnant mamas should rest and put their feet up as much as possible. While you are at it, soak a soft, clean cloth in warm water. Squeeze it out so it is just damp and lay it across your eyes. In addition to increasing blood flow to the warmed tissues, eye compresses can open up the meibomian glands and stimulate lubrication production.
Prescription eye drops
If OTC eye drops aren’t sufficient, we’ll up the ante and use prescription eye drops instead. We may also recommend an eye ointment that keeps the eyes super-lubricated while you sleep, restoring their moisture and providing relief so they are less dry the next day.
Prescription drops such as Restasis® or Xiidra® are our first choices and one or the other usually does the trick.
Punctal plugs (temporary punctal occlusion)
If your dry eye is persistent and these remedies aren’t enough to take the edge off, your eye doctor may recommend punctal occlusion. This procedure plugs the tear ducts to minimize the amount of fluid that drains out of the eye. It’s sort of like putting a semi-block in your sink drain while the faucet is still running.
This procedure is completely safe for pregnant women and helps their eyes to retain more moisture. The plugs are roughly the size of a small grain of rice, and the procedure is painless. This is our preferred method for women who have dry eyes during pregnancy because the plug naturally dissolves and is absorbed by the body in three- to six months, after which women rarely experience dry eye anymore.
Don’t Suffer From Dry Eyes During Pregnancy
Is it time for you to schedule a prenatal appointment with your eye doctor? Are you feeling the effects of pregnancy-related dry eye? Schedule an appointment with the Atlantic Eye Institute and we’ll make sure your eyes are all taken care of so you can cross one more “pregnancy discomfort” of your potential list.