What is Xerophthalmia?
Xerophthalmia (; Greek for dry eyes, from Ξηροφθαλμία =
ξηρός, dry + οφθαλμός, eye) is a medical condition in which the eye fails to produce tears. It may be caused by a deficiency in vitamin A and is sometimes used to describe that lack, although there may be other causes.
Xerophthalmia caused by a severe vitamin A deficiency is described by pathologic dryness of the conjunctiva and cornea. The conjunctiva becomes dry, thick and wrinkled. If untreated, it can lead to corneal ulceration and ultimately to blindness as a result of corneal damage.
Xerophthalmia is a term that usually implies a destructive dryness of the conjunctival epithelium due to dietary vitamin A deficiency — a rare condition in developed countries, but still causing much damage in developing countries. Other forms of dry eye are associated with aging, poor lid closure, scarring from previous injury, or autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren's syndrome, and these can all cause chronic conjunctivitis. Radioiodine therapy can also induce xerophthalmia, often transiently, although in some patients late onset or persistent xerophthalmia has been observed.
The damage to the cornea in vitamin A associated xerophthalmia is quite different from damage to the retina at the back of the globe, a type of damage which can also be due to lack of vitamin A, but which is caused by lack of other forms of vitamin A which work in the visual system. Xerophthalmia from hypovitaminosis A is specifically due to lack of the hormone-like vitamin A metabolite retinoic acid, since (along with certain growth-stunting effects) the condition can be reversed in vitamin A deficient rats by retinoic acid supplementation (however the retinal damage continues). Since retinoic acid cannot be reduced to retinal or retinol, these effects on the cornea must be specific to retinoic acid. This is in keeping with retinoic acid's known requirement for good health in epithelial cells, such as those in the cornea.