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Nearly 5 million adults who are at least 50 years old (an estimated 3.2 million women and 1.68 million men) are affected by dry eye syndrome. However, this condition isn’t just limited to older individuals.

The symptoms of dry eye can also be seen in children, teens, and young adults. In fact, the number of younger individuals being diagnosed with dry eye is on the rise.

Read on to learn more about why that’s happening and what this means, and what you can do to help protect the teenagers and young adults in your life.

A common condition, dry eye occurs when your eyes don’t make enough tears or you’re unable to maintain a layer of tears to coat your eyes. Inflammation and damage to the eye’s surface can occur over time as a result.

Some symptoms of dry eye include:

  • burning, red, or irritated eyes
  • blurred vision
  • scratchy, gritty feeling like something is trapped in the eye
  • light sensitivity
  • stringy mucus coming out of the eyes

While there are many potential causes of dry eye, some common ones are:

  • health conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease
  • hormone changes
  • some medications
  • a smokey, windy, or dry climate
  • wearing contact lenses
  • looking at screens or reading for prolonged periods of time

Older adults are typically considered most at risk for dry eye.

Several studies since 2003 have shown that woman are particularly vulnerable to dry eye, considering the hormone changes that happen during pregnancy and menopause. This 2021 research reaffirms that assessment, citing a 2017 study that says differences in dry eye become significant with age.

However, the impact of staring at screens for long periods of time may be showing itself in the fact that a growing number of teenagers and younger adults being diagnosed with dry eye.

There have not been a lot of studies specifically focused on dry eye disease in adolescents.

But this 2018 study examining dry eye in 323 individuals 10 to 19 years old found that the presence and severity of dry eye in the study’s adolescent females was comparable with adults.

In general, the study found that dry eye was overlooked and underserved in younger individuals. It attributed the increase in the number of teenagers with dry eye to a combination of social and environmental contributors including an increase in screen time thanks to portable digital devices.

Dry eye can be a problem for children in school as it can make it difficult to perform necessary activities like reading and using a computer. It can also lead to headaches and sleep disorders, which contribute negatively to school performance.

Questions for diagnosing dry eyes in teenagers

To help diagnosis younger individuals, doctors can ask questions like:

  • Do your eyes feel dry?
  • How often do you rub your eyes?
  • Do you notice your eyes looking red?
  • How much time do you spend in front of screens?
  • Do you have a family history of any eye problems?
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Screentime increases the probability of dry eye because people blink less when they keep their eyes open to focus on the display. Not blinking increases exposure and evaporation time off the ocular surface of the eye and can lead to instability in the tear layer.

One 2021 survey looked at two groups of junior high students based on the amount of time spent on their smart phone. It found that those who spent a significant amount of time on their phone (3+ hours a day) were significantly more likely to have dry eye and other eye complaints.

This study indicates that the amount of screen time many teenagers have on a daily basis just between school work and smart phone usage appears to be sufficient to increase the likelihood of dry eye.

Dry eye can be a temporary or chronic condition.

If symptoms are mild, relief may come pretty immediately with treatment like drops. For more chronic dry eye, it may take several weeks or months of treatment for relief.

There are a number of things that teenagers can do to help prevent or reduce the likelihood of dry eye.

These include:

  • limiting screen time and taking regular breaks from looking at screens
  • making a conscious effort to blink more frequently
  • eating a diet with plenty of vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids (or taking a supplement) to promote good eye health and the quality of tears
  • drinking plenty of water and using a cool mist humidifier

In regard to vitamin A, participants with dry eye in small 2019 study took a daily oral supplement of this vitamin for 3 days. Each dose was 5,000 international units (IU). After 3 days, the participants had better quality tears. According to the researchers, vitamin A improves the smoothness of the tear film. This is the thin layer of fluid on the eye. It also supports the formation of tears.

If a teenager has dry eye, some possible treatment options include:

  • artificial tears or eye drops (these can be over-the-counter or prescription)
  • punctal plugs
  • changing medications
  • warm compresses
  • ointments
  • lifestyle changes (using a humidifier, avoiding potential environmental triggers, limiting screen time, wearing wrap around sunglasses, increasing water consumption, etc.)
  • surgery (very rare, but may be useful in situations where eyelids are too loose)

While many people think of dry eye as only impacting older individuals, the number of teens and young adults diagnosed with this condition has been on the rise.

An increasing amount of screen time may be partially responsible for this. Trying to take frequent breaks when looking at a screen is necessary, limiting screen time whenever possible, and even making a conscious effort to remember to blink can all help to reduce the chances of developing dry eye.

It’s important to seek medical assistance if you experience vision problems or have any concerns about your eyesight… no matter your age!

McCann P, et al. (2021). Prevalence and incidence of dry eye in the USA: a systematic review protocol.

Akib, M, et al. (2021). Association between prolonged use of smartphone and the incidence of dry eye among junior high school students.

Alanazi SA, et al. (2019). Effects of short-term oral vitamin A supplementation on the ocular tear film in patients with dry eye. doi:10.2147/OPTH.S198349

Ayaki, Masahiko et al. (2018). “Gender differences in adolescent dry eye disease: a health problem in girls.” doi:10.18240/ijo.2018.02.20

Stapelton F, et al. (2017). TFOS DEWS II Epidemiology Report.

Boyd K. (2021). What is dry eye?

Computer vision syndrome. (n.d.).

Dry eye. (2020).

Eye health statistics. (2016).

Hauser, W. (2019). How to treat dry eye in the pediatric and young adult population.

Kaufman, L. (2022). Are We Missing Dry Eye in Children?

Punctal plugs. (2022).

Vimont, C. (2020). The Benefits of Fish Oil for Dry Eye.