Dry eyes occur when your eyes don’t produce enough tears, or they produce tears that can’t effectively keep your eyes moist. Tears are needed to help keep enough moisture in your eyes. They keep your eye surfaces smooth, wash away foreign materials, and also help protect your eyes from infection.
Dry eyes may sting or burn and can be very uncomfortable. You may experience dry eyes all the time or only during certain situations. For instance, you may have dry eyes after staring at your computer for a long time or when it’s windy outside. Both eyes are usually affected at the same time.
Eye dryness affects most people at one point or another in their life. It’s rarely serious and can usually be treated with simple, over-the-counter solutions.
What Are Common Causes of Dry Eyes?
There are many reasons why you might experience dry eyes. A few common underlying causes are described in the sections below.
Inadequate Production of Tears
In most people, dry eyes are caused by low production of tears. A low production of tears is also called keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eye syndrome.
Some reasons why you might not produce enough tears include:
- old age, which is especially relevant for women. After menopause, your risk of dry eye syndrome increases significantly.
- deficiency of vitamin A, which is rare in the United States
- other medical conditions, such as diabetes, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, infections, or a thyroid disorder
- damage to your tear glands from injury, inflammation, chemical burns, heat, or radiation
- laser eye surgery, such as LASIK. Dry eyes are usually a temporary side effect.
Tears are made of a mixture of water, oils, and mucus. For some people, dry eyes are caused by an imbalance in the components of this mixture. For example, dry eyes can occur if the glands that produce oil for your eyes, known as meibomian glands, are clogged. The oily part of tears slows down evaporation.
This problem can be referred to as having “low-quality tears.”
Certain drugs can cause dry eyes, including:
- high blood pressure medication
- birth control pills
- hormone replacement therapies
- certain acne treatments
Sometimes, elements of your environment or everyday life can lead to dry eyes, including:
- dry air
- exposure to smoke
- working at a computer
- riding a bicycle
- flying in an airplane
Other factors that may contribute to dry eyes include:
- difficulty blinking
- inflammation of your eyelids, known as blepharitis
- inward or outward turning of your eyelids
- long-term use of contact lenses
When Should You Call a Doctor for Dry Eyes?
You should call your doctor if your eyes are itchy, red, and irritated for a long period of time. You should also contact your doctor if you experience blurred or sudden decreased vision or if you have pain in your eyes.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist, to determine what’s bothering your eyes. The specialist will usually conduct a thorough examination of your eyes. They will likely measure the volume of your tears. They may also measure how quickly your tears evaporate from the surface of your eye.
Treating Dry Eyes
Treatment is aimed at restoring a normal amount of tears in your eyes. You can typically care for your dry eyes at home with over-the-counter drugstore treatments.
The most common type of treatment is over-the-counter eye drops or artificial tear solutions. They are affordable, effective, and easy to apply.
There are many types of eye drops available. Some contain electrolytes, such as potassium and bicarbonate, which are thought to promote healing on the surface of your eyes. Others contain thickening agents, which keep the lubricating solution on your eye surface for longer.
There are two main groups of artificial tears: those with preservatives and those without. Eye drops with preservatives are the more common type. These usually come in a multi-dose bottle. They contain chemicals that prevent bacterial growth in the open container. However, some people find the preservatives irritate their eyes. Eye drops without preservatives come in small, single-dose vials. They are less likely to irritate your eyes. They may, however, be more expensive.
It’s hard to determine which will work best for you. You may have to try a few different brands before you find the best eye drops for you.
Some common brand names include:
- Clear Eyes
Your local grocery or drugstore might also offer a store-brand version.
Using lubricating ointments or applying a warm compress to your eyes may also help relieve dry eyes.
You probably won’t need to see a doctor for dry eyes. But if you do, your doctor may prescribe medications, such as ophthalmic cyclosporine eye drops (Restatis) or topical corticosteroids.
Your doctor may recommend taking supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids or eating dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as tuna. These fatty acids are known to decrease dry eye symptoms in some patients. Discuss proper dosage with your doctor.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to plug the drainage holes at the corners of your eyelids. These holes are where tears drain from your eye into your nose. The plugs, called lacrimal plugs, are inserted by an eye doctor. The plugs are not painful or permanent, and you probably won’t feel them.
Potential Long-Term Complications of Dry Eyes
If not treated, dry eyes can be painful and lead to infections. They can also cause ulcers or scars on your cornea, which is the front part of your eye. Loss of vision may occur. However, permanent vision loss from dry eyes isn’t common.
Dry eyes can also decrease your quality of life and make it difficult to perform everyday tasks.
How Can Dry Eyes Be Prevented?
Dry eyes can’t always be prevented. However, you can take steps to help prevent dry eyes caused by environmental factors. For example:
- Remember to blink when you’re staring at a computer or book for long periods of time.
- Increase the humidity in the air around you, using a humidifier.
- Avoid air blowing into your eyes, such as air from an air conditioner or fan.
- Wear sunglasses outside.
- Avoid tobacco smoke.
You can help prevent complications of dry eyes by using eye drops or ointments or following the treatment recommendations of your doctor.