Everything You Need to Know About Dry Eyes

Medically Reviewed By Leela Raju, MD
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Dry eye describes a lack of moisture in the eyes. It occurs when the body is unable to produce enough tears or when tears evaporate too easily. Symptoms can include a stinging or burning sensation in the eyes. Without treatment, dry eyes can lead to complications such as light sensitivity and eye infections.

This article explains everything you need to know about dry eyes. It also describes symptoms, causes, and treatment options associated with the condition.

What is dry eye? 

dry eyes
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Dry eye usually happens when the eyes are not well lubricated. This increases the risk of eye infections, vision loss, and other eye problems.

Healthy eyes are always moist. The body keeps them that way by producing tears constantly. Water, fatty oils, protein, and electrolytes make up tears. These elements work together to fight off bacteria and keep the eyes smooth.

The body uses a tear film to retain some amount of tears in the eyes at all times, even when you are not crying.

The tear film is an eye surface coating composed of water, oils, and mucus. It maintains the proper distribution of tears and reduces tear evaporation.

However, some conditions can disrupt the work of the tear film. This leads to dry eyes.

Are dry eyes serious?

Dry eyes can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Mild and moderate dry eyes may present minor symptoms. However, severe dry eyes may lead to blindness. Seek medical advice if you feel that you have severe dry eyes.

What are the symptoms of dry eyes?

Dry eyes typically make the eyes sting, burn, or feel itchy. This sensation may worsen with activities such as staring at a computer screen for long periods.

Symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • a gritty or itchy feeling in the eyes
  • foreign body sensation
  • stringy discharge from the eyes
  • blurred or double vision 
  • watery eyes 
  • sensitivity to light and smoke 
  • redness of the eyes 
  • discomfort wearing contact lenses

When to contact a doctor 

Be sure to consult your doctor as soon as symptoms of dry eyes appear. This is especially important if you experience any of the following: 

  • a loss of vision 
  • sensitivity to light 
  • roughness of the eye surface 
  • an eye injury

Prompt and effective treatment can help prevent further complications.

What causes dry eyes? 

Dry eyes indicate that the body is not producing enough tears to reinforce the tear film. Dry eyes may also result from an imbalance in the tear mixture, resulting in the early evaporation of tears.

Many factors contribute to these deficiencies. They include the following.

Eyelid problems 

The eyelids complement the work of the tear film by protecting the eyes from foreign bodies. If the eyelids do not perform their proper function, dry eyes may set in.

Factors that contribute to eyelid problems include:

  • eyelid inflammation 
  • the eyelids rolling inward, known as entropion
  • the lower eyelid rolling outward, known as ectropion
  • incomplete closure of the eyelids, particularly overnight

Learn more about eyelid issues here.

Medications

Certain medications can target and reduce tear proteins. This reduces the efficacy of tears in moisturizing the eyes. These medications include: 

  • antihistamines
  • decongestants
  • beta-blockers
  • antidepressants
  • some sleeping pills
  • birth control pills
  • some acne drugs
  • opiate-based pain relievers

Environmental conditions

A variety of environmental factors can accelerate the evaporation of tears, leading to dry eyes. They include:

  • low humidity
  • hot sun
  • wind
  • high altitudes
  • dry air
  • smoke

Medical conditions

Some medical conditions can stifle tear production and disrupt tear film function, resulting in dry eyes. They include:

Other causative factors

These factors can also contribute to dry eyes:

  • performing long tasks on a computer, as this may limit blinking and leave the eyes dry
  • smoking cigarettes, as this can irritate the surface of the eyes

Risk factors for dry eyes 

According to the National Health Service (NHS), dry eyes more commonly occur in people over 50 years old. This means that aging may be a risk factor.

Other possible risk factors include:

  • being female
  • having a vitamin A deficiency 
  • wearing contact lenses

How can you treat dry eyes? 

The aim of dry eye treatment is to remoisturize the eyes by addressing the underlying cause. For example, if vitamin A deficiency is the underlying cause, your doctor will recommend eating more foods rich in vitamin A.

Your doctor may also prescribe certain eye drops and other treatment options to speed up recovery. These include:

  • cyclosporine (Restasis) eye drops to boost tear production
  • steroid eye drops to reduce inflammation of the eye surface
  • antibiotics to reduce eyelid inflammation
  • surgery to close the tear ducts and prevent excess tear evaporation

Treatment may not always alleviate the problem, but it may reduce the symptoms.

Home remedies

Some home remedies can be effective against mild-to-moderate dry eyes. They include:

  • using over-the-counter eye drops or artificial tears
  • cleaning and massaging the eyelids regularly 
  • applying warm compresses to the eye area
  • eating foods rich in omega-3s, such as vegetables, fruits, and fish

If symptoms persist after you try these remedies, be sure to consult your doctor.

How can you prevent dry eyes? 

Many of the circumstances that cause dry eyes are avoidable. For example, you can avoid:

  • smoking 
  • using opiate-based pain relievers
  • staying in dry environments for too long

Some additional ways to prevent dry eyes include:

  • using a humidifier to moisturize indoor air
  • wearing protective, wraparound sunglasses 
  • taking eye breaks during long tasks on a computer
  • blinking repeatedly and evenly
  • drinking enough water
  • closing the eyes for a few minutes every now and then 

Complications 

It is critical to seek treatment for severe dry eyes. Early treatment can prevent possible complications, such as:

  • eye infections
  • damage to the surface of your eyes
  • eye inflammation
  • abrasion of the corneal surface
  • corneal ulcers
  • painful eyes
  • blindness

Summary 

Dry eye refers to a lack of moisture in the eyes. It happens when the body does not produce enough tears or when tears evaporate too easily. Symptoms include a burning sensation in the eye, eye itchiness, watery eyes, and blurred vision.

Causative factors include eyelid problems, dry conditions, and certain medications, such as antihistamines and decongestants.

To treat the condition, your doctor may prescribe medications such as cyclosporine eye drops and steroid eye drops. In rare cases, dry eyes may require surgery.

Consult your doctor as soon as symptoms of dry eyes appear.

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Medical Reviewer: Leela Raju, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 20
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