What is xerophthalmia (night blindness)?

Xerophthalmia

Xerophthalmia is an eye disease caused by vitamin A deficiency. A lack of vitamin A in the body can dry out the tear ducts in the eyes. Xerophthalmia can cause night blindness or more severe damage to your eye’s cornea, the outer layer. This damage causes white spots on the eyes and ulcers on your corneas. Xerophthalmia usually is often reversed with vitamin A therapy.

‌Xerophthalmia is a condition that causes dry eyes as a result of vitamin A deficiency. If left untreated, it can progress into nyctalopia or spots on the eyes. It can potentially damage the cornea and cause blindness.

This disease is rare and is more commonly seen in developing countries, where people are more likely to possess nutrient deficiencies. It is often treated with vitamin A supplements.

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What are the symptoms of xerophthalmia?

The symptoms of xerophthalmia start mild, then worsen if a vitamin A deficiency isn’t treated. If a person has this condition, the thin lining of their eyeball, called the conjunctiva, dries out, thickens, and wrinkles.

Night blindness is an early symptom. This is often an inability to see in dim light. The World Health Organization and public health workers have used several cases of night blindness to gauge vitamin A deficiency.

As xerophthalmia advances, lesions form on the cornea. These deposits are named Bitot’s spots. You’ll also get corneal ulcers.

Within the later stages of this condition, part or all of your cornea liquefies. This can result in blindness.

‌Xerophthalmia may be a progressive disease that begins with dry eyes and may keep getting worse. These are the classic symptoms of xerophthalmia include

  • Drying or wrinkling of the outer layer of your eye or conjunctiva
  • Night blindness is a disease where a person can’t see in dim or low light
  • Ulcers or scars on the cornea
  • Bitot’s spots, or white spots on the conjunctiva
  • Softening of cornea

‌‌Xerophthalmia is be a preventable disease. It can be treated easily when the cases are mild. But in extreme cases, it can cause lasting effect like permanent blindness.

What causes xerophthalmia?

A scarcity of vitamin A causes xerophthalmia. Our body doesn’t produce vitamin A on its own. Instead, we need to obtain vitamin A from your foods. Vitamin A is essential for vision as it’s an important element of the protein that absorbs light into the receptors in your retina.

Vitamin A is also necessary to function and maintain your heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs.

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient. Its primary function is to assist maintaining eye health. It protects vital organs, including your lungs and heart, and supports the systems in the body.‌

The human body can’t produce its own vitamin A. We need to eat foods like carrots and meat or take supplements rich in vitamin A. Getting enough vitamin A is vital for our overall health.‌

Lack of vitamin A in the diet will cause dry eyes, which is named xerophthalmia.

Risk Factors of Xerophthalmia

‌Xerophthalmia can happen due to underlying conditions that cause vitamin A deficiency. The risk factors are

Young age

 Vitamin A deficiency is common in infants and children. It can hinder a child’s growth, adversely affect vital organs, and complicate other diseases or infections. If a toddler doesn’t get enough vitamin A as they grow, it will cause xerophthalmia and childhood blindness.

Vitamin A deficiency can occur in children due to some underlying diseases like measles and respiratory infections. Such infections increase the probability of xerophthalmia in children.‌

Severe xerophthalmia affects infants much more than adults. Children 3 to 6 years are at a greater risk of acquiring night blindness.

Other factors include

Poverty

People that live in poverty and can’t afford nutritious meals are more likely to develop diseases like xeropthalmia.

Lack of nutrition education

 Those who are unaware of the benefits of vitamin A will consume less of this vitamin creating a scope for various health conditions.

Malnutrition

Lack of proper nutrition may cause vitamin A deficiency. Severe malnutrition may result in dry eyes and also cause night blindness.

Other diseases

 Diseases like pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease cause vitamin deficiency.

Liver problems. Chronic diseases like liver cirrhosis can prevent vitamin A in the body from being absorbed properly. This can result in vitamin A deficiency and may lead to xeropthalmia.

Chronic diarrhoea

People that have diarrhoea are at an increased risk of xeropthalmia because of vitamin A depletion.

Alcoholism

Drinking excess alcohol may decrease the amount of vitamin A in your body. Alcohol can cuse may serious health problems. People have normalised social drinking. A drink or two may not cause much harm to the body, but excessive alcohol can cause several health problems.

Children require enough vitamin A to grow to their maximum potential. Vitamin A deficiency affects the ability to endure common childhood infections and diseases, like diarrhoea, measles, and respiratory infections.

 Some of the risk factors that affect a person’s ability to absorb vitamin A:

  • Alcoholism
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diseases like celiac disease limit the absorption of nutrients
  • Liver diseases like cirrhosis
  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Radioiodine treatment for thyroid cancer, which can produce nonpermanent symptoms of xerophthalmia

Treatment of Xerophthalmia

‌The primary treatment for xerophthalmia is vitamin A therapy or supplementation. They are often given orally or by injection. Your doctor can also give you other medications, such as antibiotics, to help the body avoid eye infections.

Vitamin A therapy is commonly used to treat xerophthalmia in adults and children. The dose depends on your age and, the severity of the deficiency.  

A doctor may ask a person to eat more yellow-coloured fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene. They suggest adding green leafy vegetables, protein like meat, and dairy to your diet.

Prevention of Xerophthalmia

‌Xerophthalmia is often prevented with vitamin A supplements. Increasing the amount of vitamin A in the diet can prevent the disease. Specific foods that are rich in vitamin A that anyone can easily add to their meals include:‌

  • Fish liver
  • Chicken
  • Meat  
  • Eggs
  • Carrot
  • Lemon
  • Mango
  • Yam
  • Dairy products
  • Green leafy vegetables‌.

‌Adding these vitamin A-rich foods to the diet only help us prevent xerophthalmia but also help a person to maintain overall health.

Vitamin A supplements are the immediate treatment prescribed for xerophthalmia. Vitamin A can be taken orally or injected. The dose varies, consistent with your age and general health condition.

You’ll receive antibiotics to prevent secondary infections. You’ll need to keep the eye covered to protect it until the lesion fully heals.

Vitamin A supplements can instantly reverse symptoms of xerophthalmia by providing enough vitamin A.

Educating oneself on nutrition is important in helping people understand and make the best use of their available food resources. Fortified foods with vitamin A also help reduce vitamin A deficiency. Some foods which will be fortified are as follows

  • Oils
  •  Fats
  • Whole Grains
  • Milk and
  • Sugar

Another powerhouse of vitamin A is golden rice. These grains are genetically engineered and are packed with beta-carotene. It’s been opposed by groups against any genetic modification of food.

Is doctor consultation mandatory?

When a person with a particular health condition exhibits mild symptoms, home remedies can be a good option. However, if the symptoms exhibited by a person are severe, doctor consultation is mandatory.  

A doctor can prescribe medications and other treatments to manage the symptoms and treat the underlying health condition. They can also suggest antibiotics to prevent secondary infections in more advanced cases where the cornea is damaged.

To sum up

Xerophthalmia is an eye disease caused by vitamin A deficiency. A lack of vitamin A can dry out your tear ducts and eyes. The symptoms of xerophthalmia start mild, then worsen if vitamin A deficiency isn’t treated.  

A doctor can prescribe medications and other treatments to manage the symptoms and treat the underlying health condition. They can also suggest antibiotics to prevent secondary infections in more advanced cases where the cornea is damaged.

FAQs

Is Xerophthalmia the same as night blindness?  

‌Xerophthalmia is an eye disease that causes dry eyes due to a lack of vitamin A in the body. If it is left untreated, it can complex into night blindness or cause other vision problems.

Is Xerophthalmia reversible?  

Xerophthalmia is treatable and can be reversed with vitamin A therapy. Vitamin A can be obtained through dietary sources or supplements.  

Who is at risk for Xerophthalmia?

Risk factors of Xerophthalmia include
 
1. Poverty
2. Young age
3. Lack of nutrition and education on nutrition
4. Liver problems and other diseases.


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