Dry Eyes: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, and Prevention

Published 07/13/2023
by Heritage Vision Plans

During this Dry Eye Awareness Month, learn what you need to do to protect your eyes.

Are your eyes itchy, gritty, or inflamed? You may be suffering from dry eyes. Nearly 16 million Americans suffer from dry eyes, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious vision problems. Dry eyes can be a condition on their own, or a symptom of a larger problem. Understanding the factors that cause dry eyes, recognizing the symptoms, and seeking treatment are all important to prevent this common condition from growing worse. Here’s what you need to know.

What are tears, anyway?

Tears are more than just water and salt. They’re actually made of three layers: an oily layer produced by the lipid glands which prevents your eyes from drying out, a layer of water and electrolytes produced by the tear glands which keeps the eyes moist, and a mucus layer produced by the mucin glands which helps the other two layers stick to the surface of the eye.

Every time you blink, you coat the outermost layer of your eye (the cornea) with a thin film of tears. Together, the action of blinking clears away any large particles that may have stuck to the surface of your eye (like dust or eye lashes), while also reapplying the protective layer of tears.

What causes dry eyes?

At heart, dry eyes are either the result of your eyes not producing enough tears (or not producing the right balance between each of the three layers), or tears evaporating too quickly. This can be caused by a range of factors including the environment you live in, your daily habits, your age and overall health, changes in your hormones, the medications you use, and allergies.

Environmental causes.

Smoke, sand, wind and a dry environment can cause your eyes to dry out faster. Even factors such as whether your office has a strong fan blowing can make a difference. Air conditioners tend to dry air out, and winter months in cold climates also mean lower levels of humidity.

Behavioral causes.

Computer use and screen time can cause eyes to dry out, because we tend to blink less when looking at a screen or watching television. If you spend a lot of time outdoors without proper eye protection, it can also lead to eye damage, including dry eyes.

Causes related to hormones, health, and aging.

Our eyes tend to become drier as we get older, with people over the age of 50 reporting more symptoms of dry eyes. Changing hormones related to pregnancy, menopause, and birth control can also lead to dry eyes. Seasonal allergies and certain health conditions, particularly autoimmune diseases such as lupus or Sjögren’s syndrome, can also include dry eyes as a symptom. Finally, deficiencies in Vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids can also cause dry eyes.

Medical causes.

Medications that have dry eyes as a side effect include antihistamines, nasal decongestants, antidepressants, and birth control pills. Lasik eye surgery can cause temporary dryness, while leaving contacts in for too long is also a factor.

Symptoms of dry eye include:

  • Burning, stinging, or itchiness
  • Grit, sandiness, or particles in the eye
  • Redness and inflammation in the eyes
  • Stringy mucus coming from the eyes
  • Sensitivity to smoke
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Transient blurry vision
  • Discomfort wearing contact lenses
  • Fatigued eyes

What are the risks of dry eyes?

Left untreated, dry eyes can lead to damage of the cornea. Extreme cases may lead to corneal ulcers, scarring, and even loss of vision. A March 2022 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology also showed a link between dry eye disease and depression. The study indicated that patients who screened positive for depression also had stronger symptoms of dry eye disease. While the study showed a correlation between depression and dry eyes, it did not identify a cause behind that correlation.

How can dry eyes be treated?

The best way to manage your dry eye symptoms will depend on what is causing the irritation. In some cases, time and rest will help the dry eyes to clear up on their own. However, there are steps you can take to prevent dry eye symptoms from forming, and treatments you can use to relieve symptoms once they start.

To prevent dry eyes:

  • Stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water, and cut back on alcohol.
  • Run a humidifier, especially during the winter or in drier climates.
  • Wear eye protection when you’re outdoors to protect your eyes from wind, dust, and smoke. Goggles and sunglasses can also protect your eyes from UV radiation.
  • Remember to blink, especially if you spend a lot of time working at a computer or watching television. Take breaks as needed to rest your eyes.
  • Get plenty of sleep.

To treat dry eyes:

  • Over-the-counter eyedrops or fake tears can relieve symptoms, but over-use can also cause your eyes to produce fewer tears naturally.
  • Prescription treatments include the anti-inflammatory medications cyclosporine and lifitegrast, and autologous or allogenic serums derived from blood serum and plasma.
  • New in-office treatments and devices are also under development that directly target glands and tear ducts.

Talk to your eye doctor to learn about the best treatments if you suffer from dry eyes.

If you regularly experience dry eye symptoms, talk to your eye doctor. A thorough exam may be needed to identify the underlying causes, and your eye doctor will be able to recommend the most appropriate treatment. Even if you are not experiencing symptoms, be sure to keep up on your annual exams as early detection is important for treating this condition, as well as many others.