Symptoms of Meibomian Gland Dysfunction

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While you may have never heard of your meibomian glands, you may have symptoms of dry eyes due to meibomian gland dysfunction. Normally, these glands produce an oily substance known as meibum, which spreads from the eyelid margins across the surface of the eye every time you blink.

This layer of fat helps to prevent evaporation of tears, as well as make the tears more stable. On each of the upper eyelids alone, there are about 25 to 40 meibomian glands. On each lower eyelid, there are around 20 to 30.

The meibomian glands can become clogged or can produce poor quality oil leading to eye surface problems. This article will describe the most common symptoms of meibomian gland dysfunction, rare symptoms, complications, and when to see your doctor.

Dry eye symptoms

Charday Penn / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

Commonly, the symptoms of meibomian gland disease will resemble dry eye disease since this can often be the cause of the dryness.

Symptoms of general dryness include the following:

  • Burning sensation
  • Grittiness
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Visual fluctuations

Other symptoms that those with meibomian gland dysfunction typically have include:

  • Redness
  • Crustiness and/or discharge
  • Eye watering
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Styes
  • Meibum that’s thick like toothpaste
  • Loss of meibomian glands
  • Low quantity of meibum on the ocular surface
  • Redness of the posterior lid margin

Rare Symptoms

Most cases of meibomian gland dysfunction display common symptoms. In some instances, you may develop a chalazion, which is a swollen lump that can occur if a meibomian gland becomes blocked.

While most of the time this is a meibomian gland issue, in rare cases, this may actually be skin cancer of the eyelid that resembles the chalazion. It is important to determine if this is a simple chalazion involving meibomian gland disease or if you are dealing with something more serious.

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

Unless you detect and treat meibomian gland dysfunction, you are at risk for possible complications. One possibility is that the cornea will dry out as a result of the evaporative dry eye that occurs. If this is not reversed in time, scar tissue can begin to form.

There is also the possibility that the meibomian glands themselves will begin to atrophy and no longer function properly. Once this happens, it can be extremely difficult to turn things around and restore normal function. The sooner you bring any symptoms to your doctor’s attention, the better.

Yet another complication of meibomian gland dysfunction can be blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids). When the meibomian glands aren’t working well or become blocked, bacteria in the area can flourish and cause a bacterial infection.

A blepharitis infection can cause:

  • Eyelid lining redness
  • Blocked eyelid oil glands
  • Unsatisfactory tear quality

In some cases, meibomian gland dysfunction may be linked to Demodex mites that live in the glands. If these overrun the area, you may find yourself dealing with an infestation. This can cause mechanical damage and severe inflammation to the meibomian glands and your eyelashes.

People who should be on particular alert for signs of meibomian gland dysfunction are those who undergo cataract surgery.

Research has shown that even otherwise healthy patients who undergo uncomplicated cataract removal are prone to persistent dry eye. They may experience meibomian gland dysfunction afterward. Of the 96 people in the study, 31 had persistent dye eye symptoms three months after surgery, as well as increased meibomian gland dropout.

So, if you have recently undergone cataract surgery, be particularly aware of any signs of meibomian gland dysfunction or dry eye. Reach out to your doctor if you do experience this.

When to See a Doctor

If you suspect that you may have meibomian gland dysfunction, it’s important to reach out to a doctor who can do a comprehensive eye exam. The doctor can not only examine your eye’s secretions, but also test the tears themselves to determine how stable your tear film is currently. They can determine the cause and the best course of treatment for you.

It can be important to distinguish meibomian gland dysfunction from other forms of dry eye so that the underlying problem can be effectively treated. The good news is that once you know what to look for, meibomian gland disease can be easily identified.

It’s also important to seek attention here to overcome possible quality-of-life issues that can be caused by meibomian gland dysfunction. This can make it impossible for some people to wear their contact lenses. Having red, puffy eyes from this condition might cause professional issues if others wonder if they are due to substance use.

Even if you think you couldn’t possibly have meibomian gland disease, keep the symptoms in mind. Some people may erroneously believe that this strictly affects older people. While older people may be prone to this, so can others.

In fact, a 2016 study showed a 6.6% prevalence of dry eye disease in the pediatric population ages 7 to 12. Other factors such as use of antihistamines or oral contraceptives or recent eye surgery can make even young people prime candidates.

Summary

The common symptoms of meibomian gland dysfunction are having dry eyes that may burn or having a gritty sensation or feeling that there is something in your eye. Eyes may be red, crusty, sensitive to light, or watery.

Seeking diagnosis and treatment for meibomian gland dysfunction can help prevent complications such as damage to the cornea or blepharitis (eyelid inflammation). People who have cataract surgery may experience meibomian gland dysfunction and should report symptoms to their doctor.

A Word From Verywell

Having meibomian gland disease can be uncomfortable and feel challenging. The good news is that if you recognize the signs and promptly address these, your meibomian gland function can be readily restored.

Determining whether you are indeed dealing with meibomian gland disease or another form of dry eye can be key. Fortunately, your eye care professional can make this determination for you in short order. So, if you suspect that this may be the issue, reach out to learn more promptly.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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