If you have dry eyes, your eyes may itch, burn, or sting. You may have trouble seeing because your vision is blurry. Wearing contact lenses might be painful.
You may have heard that consuming caffeine — or perhaps avoiding it — can provide relief for these symptoms. But what effect does it really have?
Here’s what research says about the relationship between caffeine and dry eyes, along with other effective dry eye treatments.
It was once thought that caffeine might contribute to dry eyes because it’s a diuretic. That means it causes the body to expel more fluids through urine.
Studies have failed to link caffeine to dry eyes. In fact, several small studies in healthy people suggest that caffeine may stimulate tear production.
For example, one double-blind 2012 study of 78 people found that those who took caffeine tablets had more tears than those who received a placebo tablet. Another 2014 study of 41 people came to a similar conclusion.
While these findings are promising, it’s uncertain if they apply to the general population. Future studies need to test whether caffeine produces tears in people who actually have dry eye disease (DED), are older, or who have other health conditions.
Other research is less convincing. In a study published in 2018, researchers looked at the link between coffee consumption and DED. They found that the prevalence of DED decreased as coffee consumption increased.
People who drank more than three cups of coffee per day had the lowest rates of DED, at 6.3 percent. That’s compared to 8.8 percent of people who drank one to two cups per day and 9.2 percent of people who had less than a cup of coffee per day.
This increased risk for DED disappeared after researchers added other risk factors for DED to their analyses, such as the sex of participants.
In short, it’s safe to say that caffeine isn’t harmful to healthy people with dry eyes. But the jury’s still out on whether it’s actually helpful.
Because some research suggests caffeine may boost tear production, you could give it a try.
Your best bet is to avoid sugar-packed sodas and energy drinks. These have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and overall mortality.
Instead, opt for coffee. Coffee contains nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, and niacin. It’s also a major source of health-protecting antioxidants.
Research has shown that coffee may even improve exercise performance and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
Experts say it’s generally safe for most healthy adults to have up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per day. That’s equivalent to about four 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee.
Coffee can have side effects, particularly if you’re not used to caffeine or you’re drinking too many cups per day.
The impact of caffeine varies from person to person. It’s helpful to pay attention to how it impacts you.
If you experience negative effects, or if you have an anxiety disorder or sleep issues, you might want to reduce your intake or avoid caffeine.
If you’re suffering from dry eyes, talk with your eye doctor. They can assess the cause and severity of your symptoms.
Most people find that regularly using over-the-counter eye drops (artificial tears) helps to manage mild dry eye symptoms.
For moderate to severe dry eye syndrome, your doctor might prescribe one of the following treatments:
- cyclosporine (Restasis, Cequa), a medication that reduces inflammation in the cornea
- antibiotics, if dry eyes are due to inflammation in your eyelids
- cholinergic drugs pilocarpine or cevimeline, which stimulate tear production
- lifitegrast (Xiidra), a medication that tamps down on inflammation responsible for DED
Other recommended treatments may include:
- surgery, such as punctal plugs or thermal cautery, to close the tear ducts and reduce tear evaporation
- special contact lenses
- eye masks or warm compresses to unblock oil glands
- intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy and eyelid massage
Research on whether caffeine genuinely helps with dry eyes is mixed. Several small studies show that caffeine may increase tear production in healthy people. But no research has examined whether caffeine can actually help people with dry eyes to produce more tears.
Because additional research is needed to test caffeine’s benefits in managing dry eye disease, your best bet is to talk with your eye doctor about treatment options.
If coffee doesn’t negatively affect you, consider conducting your own experiment by adding a cup or two to your morning routine.