CHESAPEAKE, Va. — The pandemic has us spending too much time staring at our screens.
When we don't blink enough, our tears evaporate quickly and can dry out our eyes.
The breath that escapes from under our masks can make our eyes feel red, and irritated.
Today, a handful of eye care practices offer state-of-the-art treatment for dry eyes.
Rather than treating symptoms alone, the focus is on the root cause of why our eyes don't produce enough quality tears.
"Artificial tears are great. For many people, they can provide temporary relief, but it is very temporary," said Dr. Shane Swatts of Eastern Virginia Eye Associates.
Jennifer Biggs has tried a variety of treatments for dry eyes.
"For me, it's more my phone. I'm in sales so I'm on my phone all the time and the computer when I'm home," Biggs said.
Like millions of people, Jennifer wears contacts, which can dry the eyes. She was using drops every 15 minutes, but her 'dry eyes' always came back.
Jennifer's eyes showed classic signs of Dry Eye Disease, inflamed abnormal blood vessels along the eyelid margin. Meibomian Glands were clogged, producing cloudy and thick toothpaste-like oils, rather than clear oils that produce quality tears.
"We have a set number of these glands that we're born with, and once we've lost them, we can't regenerate them," Dr. Swatts said.
Jennifer opted for a treatment called 'Intense Pulsed Light,' or IPL. Patches are placed over her eyes to protect delicate eye tissues. A lubricating gel is applied to her face to help the light target the treatment area.
Dr. Swatts makes two passes with a cooled 'light guide' across Jennifer's face. Each pulse feeling like the gentle snap of a small rubber band.
"We've had no one abandon this procedure from the standpoint of comfort," Dr. Swatts said.
In four sessions, IPL eliminates abnormal blood vessels on the face, including areas of rosacea which can contribute to dry eyes. The pulsing light also melts the oils of the 'Meibomian Glands' giving them a warm baby oil appearance, more capable of producing quality tears.
Jennifer's IPL treatments are capped off with a process called Lipiflow. Thermo-pulsating activators heat the eyelids glands, freeing them of obstructions, expressing the bad oils that cause dry eyes.
Jennifer says people no longer wonder if she's been crying, and she can wear her contacts longer.
"So, it was eye-opening to learn that my tears were not quality tears. So, for me, I can tell the difference because I didn't have them before." Biggs said.
Dr. Swatts says ceiling fans, CPAP machines and the AC in your car all may contribute to 'Dry Eye Disease.' If you have blurred vision or even too many tears, it also may be time to see your doctor.
"There are some pretty significant effects that can show up in untreated 'Dry Eye Disease.' One of those being damage to the Cornea which is the front window of the eye," Dr. Swatts said.
IPL packages cost between $1,500 and $1,700 and the procedure is not covered by insurance.
But Dr. Swatts says some people are spending as much as $400 a month on treatments for dry eyes that don't get to the root of their problem.