Can I do anything about dry eyes?

A man puts eye drops in his eyes.

Dry eye syndrome can be a problem anytime, especially for older adults, but with the onset of autumn, the cooler, drier air outdoors can increase instances of dry eyes. Here's some useful information about the pain, blurred vision and general discomfort caused by dry eye and some things you can do about it.

What is it?

According to the American Optometric Association, dry eye is a condition in which there aren’t enough tears to lubricate and nourish the eye. Tears are necessary for maintaining the health of the front surface of the eye and for providing clear vision.1

Tears: there's more to them than meets the eye

Tears are more than water. In fact, they have three layers: oil, water, and mucus. Each layer protects and nourishes the cornea (the front surface of the eye). A smooth oil layer helps keep the water layer wet; the mucus layer helps spread the tears evenly over the cornea.

Each time you blink, glands in and around the eyelids create tears. From there, they spread across your corneas. And these tears are beautiful things. They help wash away grit, pollen, and other material that shouldn't be in your eyes. They also keep your eye membranes moist, smooth, and clear.

Causes of dry eyes

Common causes of dry eye syndrome include:

  • Age
  • Medicines you're taking
  • Contact lenses
  • Eye surgery
  • Medical conditions like diabetes and thyroid trouble

All these can lead to dry eyes. Gender is a factor, too. Women are more likely to have dry eyes, according to the American Optometric Association. Pregnancy, birth control or hormonal changes of menopause are the main reasons for this.

There are also environmental causes. Wind, smoke and dry climates can all cause dry eyes. And in the winter, what do we have? All those things. We escape the cold wind by going into houses that are extra dry from the heat being turned on. We enjoy those nice fires—those nice fires that, unfortunately, produce eye-irritating wood smoke.

Dry eye symptoms

Common symptoms of dry eye syndrome include:

  • Irritated, gritty, scratchy or burning eyes
  • Feeling like something is in your eyes
  • Excessive watering
  • Blurred vision

If you're having these symptoms on a regular basis, it's important to find out if you have dry eyes. In some cases, dry eyes can damage the corneas and impair vision. A trip to your eye doctor is the best place to start.

Things that can help

Your eye doctor has different treatments for dry eyes that work to restore or maintain the normal amount of tears in the eye. These treatments can minimize dryness and its related discomfort and help maintain eye health.

Other things you can do:2

  • Don't forget to blink when you're reading, watching television or using the computer for long periods of time.
  • The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests a "20/20/20 Rule." For every 20 minutes you're sitting at the computer, shift your eyes away from the computer to an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.3
  • Keep your computer screen level or slightly below eye level. Looking up at a screen makes your eyes dry out faster.
  • Drink plenty of water. 8 to 10 glasses a day will keep you well hydrated.
  • Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses outside in the sun and wind. The more of your eye the sunglasses cover, the better. Wraparound frames work well.
  • Try raising the air's humidity level at home. A room humidifier is an inexpensive way to be much more comfortable.
  • Keep your eyes closed if you're drying your hair with a blow dryer.
  • Talk to your eye doctor about nutritional supplements. Supplements with essential fatty acids have been shown to help some cases of dry eye.
  • Stay out of smoke-filled rooms.
  • "Artificial tears" can be useful. Follow the package directions.
  • Try not to rub dry, itchy or burning eyes. It only makes things worse. Try closing your eyes for a few minutes instead.

Dry eye may be caused by an underlying medical condition. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about a dry eye problem that doesn’t get better.

Sources:

  1. “Dry Eye,” American Optometric Association, last accessed September 4, 2019, https://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/eye-and-vision-problems/glossary-of-eye-and-vision-conditions/dry-eye, opens new window.
  2. “Dry Eye.”
  3. “Computers, Digital Devices and Eye Strain,” American Academy of Ophthalmology, last accessed September 4, 2019, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/computer-usage, opens new window.