What are dry eyes?
If your eyes don’t produce enough tears to keep them lubricated, or if the tears you do produce evaporate too quickly because they’re of a poor quality, it can lead to dry eyes. You may also have dry eyes because of an underlying medical condition, which we’ll take a look at later on.
According to the Association of Optometrists, the condition affects one in four people in the UK, meaning it’s pretty common, and there are treatments available to help keep your symptoms at bay.
If you’re struggling with dry eyes, our doctors can help identify the cause and provide you with the most suitable treatment.
Having dry eyes can be very uncomfortable. Symptoms to look out for include:
- A burning or stinging sensation
- A gritty feeling in your eye
- Feeling as though there is something is in your eye
- Redness around the eyes (but not in the eye itself)
- Watering eyes (your body’s natural reaction to dry eyes)
- Being sensitive to light
- Your eyelids may stick together first thing in the morning
- Tired eyes
- If you wear contact lenses, they may feel very uncomfortable
- Blurred vision, which should clear when you blink a few times
Yes they are, although the condition can affect anyone. Risk factors include if you:
- spend long periods of time in front of a computer screen, tv or on a phone
- spend time in an air-conditioned environment, or where the heating is always on
- are over 50 years of age
- wear contact lenses
- are a woman - hormonal changes can sometime cause dry eyes especially during pregnancy, the menopause and when taking the contraceptive pill
- have an autoimmune disease
- take certain medications, such as some antidepressants, water tablets and antihistamines
- live in hot, cold, dry, dusty or windy environments
Dry eyes can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying health condition, which may include:
This is an autoimmune disease that can affect certain glands in the body, including the glands that help keep the eyes lubricated.
This can cause the eyelids to become red, swollen or infected and can cause dry eyes.
Meibomian gland dysfunction
The meibomian glands secrete oil into the tears to lubricate the eyes. When these don’t function correctly, the eyes can become dry.
If your eyes come into contact with an irritant, it can cause them to become sore, swollen and dry.
If you’re diabetic, you’re more at risk of dry eyes and eye infections, such as conjunctivitis.
According to Lupus UK, 25% of patients with lupus will experience dry eyes, which can be caused by the condition itself or the medication used to treat it.
Vitamin A deficiency
If you don’t have enough vitamin A in your body, it can cause your corneas to dry out.
This condition causes a red rash on your skin, and it can affect your eyes, causing them to dry out.
A common symptom related to rheumatoid arthritis is dry eyes. This can often be one of the first indication of the condition.
If you’re allergic to something, such as pollen, dust or pet dander, one of the symptoms could be sore, itchy dry eyes.
This is not a full list. Speak to a GP if you think your dry eyes could be down to a medical condition. The dry eye symptoms you have may not be due to a medical condition - in fact, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any cause at all.
When to see a doctor
If you have experienced periods of dry or irritated eyes on a regular basis, or if it is affecting your vision, you should speak to an expert, such as an optician or doctor.
They can examine your eyes, listen to your symptoms and get a good understanding of how your eyes are affected.
If they can’t offer you a diagnosis there and then, you may be referred for some tests, which can include:
- An eye exam
This is to check your general eye health.
- Fluorescein dye test
A orange dye is put into your eye, which temporarily stains your eye so your tears can be seen more visibly.
- Schirmer’s tear test
This measures how many tears you produce - blotting paper is placed below your eyelid for five minutes, and the doctor can then see how many tears you produce in that time.
The types of test you need will depend on what the doctor believes is causing the condition.
In some cases, you may not need any tests.
A doctor will be able to suggest suitable dry eye treatments and home remedies that are right for you - it will depend on the type of dry eyes you have.
If there is an underlying condition causing the problem, treating this will usually resolve the dry eyes you’re experiencing.
Treatments may include:
- artificial tears, which come in the form of eye drops or gels, can be used to help keep your eyes lubricated - this is the most common treatment. There are many different ones available, so speak to a doctor or pharmacist about which are the most suitable for you. Some you can buy over the counter, others have to be prescribed or administered in hospital
- night time eye ointments, which can sooth your symptoms overnight. Again, speak to a GP or pharmacist before using these, as it is not suitable for everyone.
- anti-inflammatory eye drops or tablets, which includes steroids. As these can have side effects, they’re usually only recommended in severe cases
- a review of your current medication - if that is what is causing your symptoms, the doctor may be able to prescribe an alternative
- surgery is sometimes used to help stop your tears from draining too quickly.
There are some things you can do at home to help prevent dry eyes, including:
- using a humidifier can increase the moisture content in a room, which may help keep your eyes lubricated
- eating a well-balanced diet and include omega-3 essential fatty acids, which can help with your eye health
- not wearing contact lenses all the time
- taking regular breaks from a computer if you use one regularly, or any other kind of screen
- wearing protective eyewear, such as wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes from wind, dust, smoke etc.
- avoiding streams of hot and cold air - for example, if you’re in the car, make sure the fan isn’t pointing at your face
- using warm compresses on your eyes to help with any inflammation
- keeping your eyes clean
How we can help
You can see a GP about your dry eyes at a time that suits you. Our doctors are available 7 days a week and can offer you the advice, diagnosis and treatment you may need. They can also refer you to a specialist for further investigation or treatment.
- NHS, Dry eye syndrome, 17/03/2016.
- National Eye Institute, Facts About Dry Eye, 01/07/2017.
- Rand AL & Asbell PA. Current Opinion in ophthalmology, Nutritional supplements for dry eye syndrome, 22/07/2011.
- NICE, Dry eye syndrome, 01/08/2011.
Updated: September 13, 2019