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How To Unclog Meibomian Glands?

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A close up of a woman's right eye with a swollen upper eyelid as she her meibomian glands are clogged

If you’re suffering from dry eyes, there are many possible causes for your discomfort. A common cause of dry eye disease is clogged or blocked meibomian glands. If these glands have issues, is there a way to unclog them, whether at home or with your optometrist

Continue reading to learn more about your meibomian glands, including how they affect dry eyes and how to treat them. 

What is Dry Eye Disease?

Dry eye disease is a chronic condition that nearly 30% of Canadians experience. It occurs when there are issues with your tears, causing your eyes to become dry and irritated. Your tears may not provide enough lubrication because of a lack of tear production, increased tear evaporation, or another reason. 

Dry eyes can lower your quality of life, making it difficult to focus or enjoy your day. There are many irritating symptoms related to this condition. 

Dry Eye Symptoms

There are several symptoms of dry eye disease, including: 

  • Eyes that sting, burn, or scratch 
  • Stringy mucus in or around the eyes
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Eye redness
  • Foreign object sensation
  • Difficulty wearing contact lenses
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye fatigue

You’ll typically notice dry eye symptoms in both of your eyes. How does this condition develop? 

What Causes Dry Eyes? 

Dry eyes can occur for several reasons related to the disruption of your tear film. Your tear film consists of 3 layers designed to help moisturize and protect your eyes: 

  • Mucin
  • Aqueous fluid
  • Lipid

Your tears spread across your eye’s surface each time you blink to keep the eye lubricated, smooth and clear. If there is a problem with one of the tear film’s layers, it can lead to dry eyes. Many possible causes for your dry eyes exist, including insufficient tear production, poor tear quality, or external factors. 

Insufficient Tear Production

Insufficient tear production occurs when you don’t have enough tears to lubricate your eyes. Also known as aqueous tear-deficient dry eye disease, this condition can cause uncomfortable and irritated eyes. 

Age is a common reason people produce fewer tears, but other factors can affect this condition. The factors causing aqueous tear-deficient dry eye include: 

Poor Tear Quality 

Poor tear quality is also known as evaporative dry eye disease. This condition occurs when the oil needed to prevent your tears from evaporating has complications. Without this vital part of the tear film, your tears evaporate faster, leading to dry eyes. 

The glands releasing this oil (meibum) can become clogged or blocked, causing less meibum to secrete from the glands. Evaporative dry eye disease can develop for several reasons, including: 

External Causes 

Dry eyes typically occur due to issues within the tear film, but external factors can dry your eyes. Possible factors contributing to dry eye disease development include: 

  • Medications
  • Environment 
  • Medical conditions 
  • Skin & eyelid disorders
  • Sex

While there are many possible reasons your eyes are dry, issues with the meibomian glands are common. Evaporative dry eye is the most common form of dry eye disease, and a primary factor in its development is meibomian gland dysfunction. 

A diagram of how the meibomian glands are positioned relative to the eyeball and the different layers of tear film

How Do Your Meibomian Glands Affect Your Eyes? 

Your meibomian glands rest along the edge of your eyelids near the eyelashes. These glands create the oil used in your tear film, helping prevent evaporation. Your meibomian glands are crucial for lubricating and protecting your eyes

Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) occurs when problems arise with your glands or the oil secreting from these glands. It’s common for these glands to become clogged or plugged. Your dry eyes are likely to worsen and cause further irritation if this condition is left untreated. 

If you have MGD, how can you unclog your meibomian glands and restore your tear film’s functionality? 

How Can You Unclog Meibomian Glands? 

There are several treatment options for clogged meibomian glands. Your optometrist can recommend the most effective treatments for your needs after assessing your eyes in a comprehensive eye exam

Some potential treatments include iLux, medications, and at-home care. 

iLux

iLux is a treatment that can warm and unplug the meibomian glands. This device provides heat and gentle pressure in the eyelids to open blocked glands and stimulate the release of oil. The overall treatment lasts between 8–12 minutes at your optometrist’s office. 

Previous research found that iLux can improve dry eye symptoms in as little as 4 weeks

Medication

If your optometrist finds it necessary, they may prescribe prescription medication to address clogged meibomian glands. Steroid drops can help reduce inflammation and increase oil flow to the eyes. Your eye doctor can determine the best medication for your needs. 

At Home Care

For milder cases of MGD, you may be able to treat clogged meibomian glands at home. Your eye doctor may recommend several remedies, including: 

  • Warm compresses
  • Eyelid cleansers
  • Omega-3 supplements 

Don’t Let Dry Eyes Rule Your Life

Dry eyes may feel insignificant, but this irritation can make everyday life more difficult. Without proper treatment, your symptoms may become worse with time. With help from your eye doctor, you can address the cause of your dry eyes, whether it’s clogged meibomian glands or another issue. Contact your optometrist if you’re experiencing symptoms of dry eye disease.

Written by Shonah Finlay

Dr. Finlay grew up by the gold mines in South Africa and knew from a young age she wanted to follow a medically related career. She applied to and was accepted to study optometry at the former Rand Afrikaans University in South Africa. During her last year of studies, Dr. Finlay worked on the Train of Hope: South Africa’s Phelophepa. This custom-built train (now 2) travels throughout rural South Africa to deliver top-quality primary healthcare to disadvantaged communities. It was a wonderful experience to bring sight to so many people that otherwise do without. Those memories always remind her of why she loves practicing optometry.
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