When dry eye inflammation occurs, it can develop into a painful cycle. But there are measures that can help prevent and treat it.

The number of people experiencing dry eye inflammation is higher than you might expect. Studies suggest that 16.4 million U.S. adults are diagnosed with dry eye disease (DED), while 6 million experience symptoms without a diagnosis.

Inflammation is a critical factor in DED. Its cyclical effect not only encourages symptoms but exacerbates them once they arise.

Let’s look at what dry eye inflammation involves and how it can be treated.

The signs of dry eye inflammation can be easily confused with symptoms associated with other concerns, such as hay fever and allergies.

According to Dr. Benjamin Bert, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, the main signs include:

  • redness
  • burning
  • irritation
  • the sensation of a foreign body

It’s also possible to experience dry eyes and not have any of the above symptoms.

“Sometimes, the only symptom could be intermittent blurred vision that clears with blinking or putting in artificial tears,” Bert says.

It’s important to understand that even though they’re closely linked, DED and dry eye inflammation aren’t quite the same.

“DED is a condition where the eyes don’t produce enough tears or tears evaporate too fast, leading to dryness, irritation, and discomfort,” explains Dr. Ranjodh S. Boparai, an ophthalmic surgeon and CEO of CorneaCare.

When your eyes become dry and the tear “film” isn’t there to keep things lubricated, the eye’s surface is more susceptible to damage and injury.

It’s this damage that leads to inflammation, says Boparai, as inflammation “is a natural response of the body’s immune system to injury or infection.”

Numerous factors can cause DED, increasing your chances of developing inflammation.

Additional risk factors

Sex plays a role, with one research paper revealing that people assigned female at birth are twice as likely to be affected by dry eyes than people assigned male at birth.

A decrease in hormone levels (namely estrogen) may enhance women’s predisposition to DED. Meanwhile, stress, depression, and anxiety has also been linked to DED development — and women are statistically more likely to experience anxiety and depression.

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”

Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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DED occurrence is also associated with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease. These are also more common among women.

Age is another consideration, as DED is more common in people over 50 — although younger individuals can be affected. It’s thought that DED becomes more prevalent with age as the quality of the eye’s surface and tear film stability naturally wears down.

Other elements that are more within our control can also contribute to DED. Wearing contact lenses significantly increases your chances of developing DED, with studies revealing that up to 65% of lens wearers experience the condition.

Meanwhile, lower body mass index (BMI) has been linked to DED, along with taking certain medications and excessive screen time.

Lastly, Bopari says that “environmental factors, such as living in a dry climate,” can also contribute.

As noted previously, the inflammation involved with DED can become somewhat of a vicious cycle. So what’s going on?

“When there is dryness on the surface of the eye, little microscopic cracks can form,” reveals Bert. “This breakdown creates inflammation to try and heal the cracks, which then also changes the composition of the tears themselves.”

But the effects of inflammation don’t end there.

These changes prevent the tears from moisturizing the eye as well as they should, continues Bert — “which then leads to more dryness and thus more inflammation.”

From there, he says, this cycle can continue and worsen until treated.

“Dry eye is a chronic condition and … there is no definitive cure,” states Bert. But there are treatment options that can aid in easing and reducing symptoms of DED and associated inflammation.

Artificial tears

When your eyes can’t make “proper” tears, these over-the-counter drops can aid in keeping things moist.

A study of peri- and postmenopausal women found that using artificial tear drops between three and six times daily for three months significantly improved dry eye symptoms.

Prescription eye drops

“Some prescription eye drops, such as cyclosporine (Restasis) and lifitegrast (Xiidra), are specifically designed to reduce inflammation and improve the production of tears in the eyes,” says Bopari.

While studies show these drops to be generally very effective, it’s worth noting they can cause side effects. For instance, lifitegrast may lead to pain, irritation, and reduced ability to distinguish shapes.

In severe cases of inflammation, steroid eye drops may be prescribed. But Bopari says that “these drops should be used with caution and under the supervision of a doctor, as long-term use can have side effects.”

Eyelid hygiene

This involves using both a warm compress and an eyelid wipe daily. The compress is beneficial because it “keeps the eyelid oil glands optimized, which enhances your tear film,” Bopari explains.

Meanwhile, the wipes help keep your lids and lashes clean and stop dirt from entering the eye.

The time it takes for symptoms to ease will depend on their severity and cause.

Bopari says that some cases will start showing improvement within a few days, whereas others can take several months.

If an underlying medical condition is causing DED, it can take longer for improvements to be seen compared to when environmental factors are the trigger.

While you can’t influence risk factors such as your age or sex assigned at birth, there are approaches you can take to help prevent dry eye inflammation — particularly concerning lifestyle choices and habits.

For instance, we spend an average of 10 hours each day looking at screens — and this is a major contributor to DED. Take frequent breaks when looking at a screen for an extended period, “closing your eyes for 2 to 3 seconds and then returning to your activity,” suggests Bert.

Not drinking enough water can also lead to dry eyes, so aim to hit the recommended 2 liters a day. Bert notes that caffeine doesn’t count since too much can dehydrate you.

“Avoiding environmental irritants like smoke or dry air,” is another option, says Bopari. He suggests using a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

Dry eye inflammation occurs as a result of DED, although inflammation can also worsen DED symptoms.

Age and sex are the most prevalent risk factors, although other elements — such as the environment and certain health conditions — can also play a role.

Inflammation can be brought under control through various treatments, and earlier treatment can help break the “inflammation cycle” sooner.

If you’re experiencing signs of DED, consider visiting an eye doctor. They’ll be able to diagnose your concern and advise on the best treatment options.