It’s hard to resist rubbing your eyes when they are itchy, tired or dry, but the short term relief may not be worth it in the long run.
The skin around our eyes is extremely delicate and so is the cornea, the clear window at the front of the eye, which can be damaged if rubbed too hard or scratched.
Worse still, too much irritation of the cornea can cause or perpetuate harmful conditions; one such condition is the little-known keratoconus.
What is keratoconus?
Keratoconus is a progressive, degenerative eye disease that thins the cornea. The cornea can then start to bulge or protrude outward in a cone-like shape. This conical shape distorts how the cornea refracts light, which can result in blurred vision.
Imagine your cornea as a thin piece of paper covering and protecting the front of your eye. For those with keratoconus this piece of paper is thinner than the average person.
Now imagine rubbing that already weakened piece of paper every day due to dry eyes or allergies to the point that it's so thin it causes the eye to bulge out of shape.
Who is most susceptible to keratoconus?
Keratoconus affects around 1 in 2,000 people, but there is a strong relationship between the condition and those with atopic disorders such as asthma, eczema and hay fever.
Many Australians experience heightened symptoms of such disorders as the seasons change in autumn and spring and are therefore at greater risk of excessive eye rubbing.
Can keratoconus be treated?
There is unfortunately no ‘cure’ available for keratoconus. As those susceptible to keratoconus can accelerate the condition from rubbing their eyes it is critical to keep on top of dry eye and allergy. Optometrists have many options available to help treat the symptoms and underlying causes of dry eye and allergy.
In addition, prescription glasses and rigid contact lenses can help improve vision for keratoconics. As the condition progresses and the cornea becomes more distorted, visual correction with rigid contact lenses generally becomes the only option for clear vision.
In extreme cases, there is a possibility for corneal transplants via surgery. This surgery has a very high success rate, with 98.1% of corneas surviving the first year and 97.5% surviving beyond four years. Prominent Australian rapper 360, also known as Matt Colwell, notably had a successful cornea transplant for keratoconus in 2006 and went on to forge his career in music.
Corneal cross-linking is another surgical option available for rapidly progressing keratoconus and while it cannot ‘cure’ keratoconus, it may slow the rate of change.
What are the symptoms of keratoconus?
People living with keratoconus may experience the following symptoms:
- Blurred or distorted vision
- Increased sensitivity to bright light and glare
- A need for frequent changes in their prescription glasses or contact lenses
- Sudden worsening or clouding of vision
- Glare or halos when looking at light sources
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms it’s important you book in with your local optometrist immediately.
For those with atopic disorders like hayfever and allergies, you’ll be more susceptible to keratoconus so it’s important to remain cautious and visit an optometrist once a year to make sure you’re not doing any unwanted damage by excessively rubbing your eyes.