What is dry eye?
If you are suffering from dry eye it means your eyes do not make enough tears, or the tears produced are of poor quality and do not contain the right balance of mucus, water and oil.
Dry eye is probably the most common of all eye problems.
Many adults suffer from dry eye, but most people are unaware that this condition exists. Most sufferers are middle-aged or elderly women but, men and young adults can also suffer.
What are the symptoms of dry eye?
You may have dry, red, burning, gritty or watery eyes which are very sensitive to bright light. Your eyes may become itchy, particularly later in the day and you may notice mucus around your eyes when you wake up in the morning.
Your eyes may always look red, or you may feel like there is something in your eye (it often feels like a tiny grain of sand).
What causes dry eye?
The symptoms of dry eye may be caused by other medical conditions, such as allergies affecting your eyes and some types of arthritis. Certain medicines (such as antihistamine) can also cause dry eye.
Another cause of dry eye is problems with your eyelids (particularly if they are inflamed) which can prevent your eyes from producing tears or prevent the tears reaching your eyes. The latter can happen if the tiny channels that your tears pass through to reach your eyes become blocked.
In situations where you blink less often (eg, when you are reading a book, watching television, or when you are driving) fewer tears are produced and the problem will be more noticeable. Symptoms are also made worse when the air is very dry (eg, from central heating) or smoky. Being outside in windy conditions can also dry out the eyes.
Why are my eyes sometimes watery?
Some people with dry eye find that their eyes are constantly watery. This may be confusing when you have been told by your doctor that your eye symptoms are caused by your eyes being too dry. This happens because your tears do not contain the right balance of mucus, water and oil to coat your eyes properly. The surface of your eyes dry out and feel irritated and your eyes react by producing large amounts of poor quality tears to try to compensate for this.
Do I need any tests?
If your doctor needs to confirm your condition or you have other eye problems, you may need to be referred to an eye specialist. The specialist will examine your eyes with a high-powered magnifying lens and test your eyes with special eye-drops. The eye specialist may use a dye to test whether the tear drainage channels in your eyes are causing the problem.
How can the condition be treated?
Any irritant or allergy that affects your eyes needs to be avoided if possible.
Whatever the cause of dry eye it will be helpful to put artificial tear drops (eg, hypromellose) or lubricating gel (eg, Gel Tears®, Viscotears®) into your eyes as often as is needed (every hour if necessary) to keep your eyes comfortable. There is a wide range of eye drops and gels available from pharmacies with or without a prescription. Eye ointments (eg, Lacri-Lube®) are also available to provide longer lasting or overnight lubrication. If you need to use the drops, gels or ointments frequently (more than four times a day), it is advisable to avoid those containing preservatives which can irritate your eyes - ask your pharmacist for advice on which preparations are preservative-free.
Treatment of the underlying cause can sometimes improve your symptoms. In more severe cases of dry eye it may be effective to block the tiny drainage channels (known as lachrymal ducts) which drain away the tears. This will help to moisten your eyes. This can be done by an eye specialist using temporary plugs inserted into the ducts or by treatment to block them permanently.
- Apply artificial tear drops or lubricating gel as required
- Use humidifiers in your home - especially if you have central heating
- Drink plenty of fluids to keep the body well hydrated
- Try to blink your eyes often to produce more tears - especially when you are concentrating on a task
- Try to avoid fumes, dust and smoke (eg, from cigarettes) which can irritate your eyes
- Try not to rub your eyes as this may make them sore
- Wear wrap-around sunglasses outside to stop the wind drying your eyes too quickly
Fact sheet provided by MIMS
Date last reviewed: October 2016