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Tears–No Crying Matter

The humble tear doesn’t get much attention until we cry or feel the discomfort of not having enough or having too many tears. To maintain healthy, comfortable eyes, we need the right balance of tear production.

Tears are our body’s way of keeping our eyes moisturized and nourished. They also help protect our eyes by washing out foreign objects. Tears aren’t just a diluted form of salt water, they’re composed of the perfect balance of ingredients our eyes need for optimal health.

Tear Composition:
A tear is composed of three different layers:

  1. An outermost, oily layer that acts as a sealant to keep tears from evaporating
  2. A middle, aqueous layer that carries vitamins and minerals (including salt, hence the salty flavor of tears) to the cornea
  3. An innermost, mucous layer that helps the tear coat and moisturize the eyes

Path of a Tear
Most tears originate in the lacrimal glands, which are located in the outside corners of the eyelids—right under your eye brows. The conjunctiva, tissue that lines the inside of the eyelids, also produces tears. Its main function is to create a protective layer of mucous to cover the eyes along with the tears the lacrimal glands create.

After tears coat the eyes and transfer moisture and nutrients to them, they drain into the lacrimal sacs located in the inner corners of your eye. From there, the tears drain into the nasal passages. That’s why your nose gets stuffy when you cry.

Tear Types
Even though the basic composition of the tear remains consistent, there are minor chemical changes in tears depending on why they develop. Some of the different types of tears the brain tells the eyes to produce are:

  1. Basal tears that coat your eyes on a day-to-day basis to keep them moisturized.
  2. Irritant/reflex tears that form in response to pain or to flush foreign objects out of the eye. Their composition is similar to basal tears, but they contain more healing properties.
  3. Emotional tears that appear in response to feelings of sadness, stress, joy and extreme emotion. These tears carry more protein-based hormones than basal or irritant tears and help to cleanse your body of the chemical side effects of pent-up emotion.

Tears and Aging
Our bodies produce fewer tears as we age. In fact, age is the most common cause of chronic dry eyes. Inadequate tear production can cause your eyes to feel gritty, look bloodshot, and sting. Over the counter moisturizing eye drops provide relief to irritated, dry eyes. Adjusting environmental factors such as turning off ceiling fans and running a humidifier can also help compensate for a tear shortage.

If your eyes are tearing up too much, or if you have chronic dry eyes, you should make an appointment for an eye exam. Your VSP network eye doctor can work with you to determine the cause of your condition and to recommend a treatment plan to relieve your symptoms.