Dry eyes are a very common eye condition that can be uncomfortable, but treatments can relieve the symptoms. People develop dry eyes for many reasons, including long-term contact lens wear, underlying conditions, certain medications, and environmental factors. The tear film provides natural lubrication that protects the front surface of the eye and keeps our eyes feeling comfortable.
Dry eyes can develop when there's an imbalance in tear production and drainage. Although dry eye disease can't be cured, you can take steps to limit some of the risk factors and use treatments like eye drops to relieve symptoms.
Dry eyes symptoms
The symptoms of dry eyes can be uncomfortable, and you may worry there is something seriously wrong with your eyes. If you notice new changes to your eyes or vision, it's always best to see your optician, who can diagnose dry eyes and other common eye conditions.
What do people with dry eyes experience?
- Sore eyes - you may feel a stinging or burning sensation.
- Gritty eyes - it can feel like there is something in your eyes.
- Itchiness - your eyes can feel itchy, with the urge to rub them.
- Red eyes - eyes can appear red.
- Blurred vision is a short-term symptom rather than a lasting change of vision.
- Light sensitivity - your eyes may be more sensitive to light, for example, headlights and sunshine.
- Watery eyes - although it sounds counter-intuitive, dry eyes tear up more as they try to compensate for the dryness.
- Contact lenses are uncomfortable - you might find it too difficult to wear contact lenses if you have dry eyes.
- Worse symptoms in some situations - certain environments can make symptoms worse, such as air-conditioned rooms and flights or working at a computer for long periods.
With severe dry eyes, there can be the risk of complications such as eye infections or corneal damage due to inflammation or abrasion. This is rare, and managing dry eyes can limit the chance of complications.
Dry eyes treatment
Treatment for dry eyes aims to reduce dryness and discomfort by improving lubrication of the eyes. There are different treatment options, and many are available without seeing a GP or optician. If your symptoms persist, get medical help.
Dry eyes syndrome
Everyone can experience dry eyes occasionally, but some people have chronic dry eyes or dry eye syndrome. If you have long-term persistent dry eyes, you may need to use artificial tears regularly, even if you don't currently have symptoms. You can take other precautions like wearing sunglasses outside to protect your eyes from windy conditions and avoiding dry environments. At home, this could include getting a humidifier to keep the air in your home from getting too dry, especially during winter.
What causes dry eyes?
There are many different causes of dry eyes, and you can be affected by more than one.
Dry eyes happen when the tear film that protects the surface of your eye is disrupted. The tear film provides lubrication for the eye and helps protect your cornea and eye health. Your tear film consists of water, oil, and mucous, which helps spread your tears across the surface of your eye.
Dry eyes can happen when your eyes don't produce enough tears, which can result from ageing, medical conditions including thyroid problems, and medications such as antihistamines, blood pressure medication and antidepressants.
Problems with the oil glands in the eyelid (the meibomian glands) can lead to increased tear evaporation and dry eyes. Blepharitis (meibomian gland dysfunction) is inflammation of the eyelid, often caused by clogged oil glands. Ocular rosacea can also affect the oil glands, making tears evaporate too quickly.
You are more likely to develop dry eyes if:
- You're over 50, as we naturally produce fewer tears as we age.
- You're experiencing hormone changes, for example, due to pregnancy or menopause.
- You have eye allergies.
- You wear contact lenses, especially long-term.
- You use computer or digital screens for extended periods without breaks.
- You smoke or are exposed to passive smoke.
- You spend a lot of time in dry, heated, or air-conditioned environments.
- Conditions are windy, cold, dry or dusty.
- You take certain medicines (including some antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants and blood pressure medicines that cause side effects).
- You have a condition that can lead to dry eyes, such as blepharitis, Sjögren's syndrome, thyroid problems, and rheumatoid arthritis.
How to prevent dry eyes
Not all the causes of dry eyes can be avoided, but there are some factors you can manage to reduce symptoms. These include:
- Blinking regularly and giving your eyes regular breaks from computer screen work.
- Wear sunglasses outside to limit your eyes' exposure to wind.
- Consider a humidifier for your home to stop the air from getting too dry, especially in winter.
- Take a break from wearing contact lenses.
- Include sources of vitamin A (like carrots and broccoli) and omega-3 fatty acids (like oily fish, nuts, seeds, and plant oils).
- Try to avoid smoking, including passive smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
Frequently asked questions
Having dry eyes is very common, and most people can relieve their symptoms by taking eye drops and making lifestyle changes such as giving their eyes a rest from contact lenses and prolonged screen use. If your symptoms aren't helped by using over the counter remedies or get worse, see your GP or optician for advice.
Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 05/09/2022
Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.