Dry eye syndrome is a condition in which the eyes don’t produce enough tears to keep the eye surface moist. Our eyes produce tears to keep them moisturized and clear out any irritants.
Dry eye can be a chronic or acute problem. Chronic dry eye is when a person has been experiencing the symptoms for six months or longer. Acute dry eye is when someone has been experiencing symptoms for less than six months.
What Are the Symptoms of Dry Eye?
Dry eye symptoms can take many different forms. Some people may not have any noticeable symptoms, but others might experience uncomfortable sensations such as:
- Burning or stinging feeling
- Sensitivity to light
- Redness or irritation
- Blurred vision
- Scratchy sensation
- Pain while wearing contact lenses
Dry eye is usually diagnosed through an eye exam. An ophthalmologist—eye doctor—will examine the surface of the eye and the eyelids. They may check to see how you blink and move your eyes. They may also check your tears to see how thick they are.
What Can Cause Dry Eye?
Every person is different, and you should try and determine what caused the symptoms. Sometimes treatment is as simple as eliminating the cause.
Some common causes of dry eye include:
- Medications such as beta-blockers, diuretics, antidepressants, and allergy medications can cause dry eyes.
- Age can cause a change in the number of tears produced. After age 50, tear production tends to decrease.
- Females tend to produce fewer tears which can lead to dry eyes. They often find that pregnancy or menopause leads to eye irritation due to hormonal changes.
- Medical conditions such as lupus, Sjögren's syndrome, thyroid disease can cause dry eye.
- A diet low in vitamin A (found in foods like broccoli, carrots, and spinach) may lead to dry eyes.
- A diet low in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, avocados, walnuts, and kidney beans) may affect eye moisture.
- Environmental factors such as smoke, wind, or dry air may dry out the eyes.
- Computer work or reading for extended periods may cause dryness.
- Prior eye surgery such as LASIK or contact lens use may lessen the moisture in the eyes.
How Is Dry Eye Treated?
Often dry eye syndrome is temporary and can usually be treated with over-the-counter products.
Ophthalmologists often recommend starting treatment with artificial tears solutions. These help provide moisture to the eyes. Artificial tears may be used several times a day and are available without a prescription.
Prescription eye drops may get recommended if the over-the-counter artificial tears solutions don't work. Your doctor will help you determine the best medication for you. Some common prescription medications include:
- RESTASIS is the brand name for cyclosporin that is commonly used to treat dry eyes.
- Xiidra: Xiidra specifically targets one of the sources of inflammation that can lead to dry eyes.
- Topical steroids: Corticosteroid eye drops like Lotemax can help by decreasing the amount of inflammation on the eye surface.
Some other treatments include:
- Warm compresses: The moisture and warmth help to soothe and hydrate the eyes.
- Intense pulsed light therapy (IPL): This treatment uses light to unblock the Meibomian glands, which are the small glands found around the edges of the eyelids. These glands produce an oily liquid that coats the surface of your eyes to keep them from drying out. IPL helps to restore the normal function of the glands that become blocked or clogged.
- Eyelid massage: Massaging along the length of the eyelids can help the fluids produced by the Meibomian glands move more freely.
How Can You Prevent Dry Eye?
You have many options to prevent dry eye. Avoiding situations that can lead to eye irritation and dryness is a good place to start. Here are some other things to try:
- Protect the eyes from wind by wearing goggles or wrap-around sunglasses
- Use a humidifier to put back moisture into the air
- Avoid smoky or dusty areas
- Use artificial tears regularly to keep your eyes moistened
- Take a break from reading or computer work as often as possible
When Should I See a Doctor?
If you find that your symptoms do not reduce and your discomfort seems to be getting worse, even with at-home treatment, it's time to seek help. An appropriate place to start is with your family doctor. An eye specialist—an ophthalmologist—can give you a more specialized exam.
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Alyse Thompson, M.D., is a freelance medical writer who has experience caring for patients in both primary care and urgent care settings. She also has a master’s degree in basic medical science. She has managed acute and chronic diseases and has taken part in medical and pharmaceutical research. Dr. Thompson’s focus has been on surgery, general medicine, weight loss, infectious disease, medical devices, pharmaceutical research, and medical apps.