SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Dry eye syndrome is characterised by insufficient tears.
- Symptoms include irritation (the sensation of having a foreign object in the eye), tired eyes, itching and some vision fluctuation.
- Treatment options include eye drops, gels or ointments, otherwise known as artificial tears.
What is dry eye?
A thin film of tears is swept over the eye surface every time you blink. A watery layer of tears is topped with an even thinner coat of lipids (fatty compounds) that help to preserve the film. To maintain eye comfort and health, the tear film needs to remain intact between blinks.
If you have dry eye syndrome, you don't have enough of the right kind of tears to keep your eyes comfortable.
This can happen if you don't produce enough tears to keep the eye surface moist, or if tears do not stay on the eyes long enough. Over time, the resulting dryness can damage the surface of the eyeball.
Who gets dry eye?
Dry eye can affect anyone, but is more common as we get older because we produce a smaller volume of tears. Dry eye is particularly common in postmenopausal women and people with .
Some medications can trigger dry eye, as can some general health conditions. People with dry eyes typically find it difficult to wear . They may also have more problems in air-conditioned environments such as offices or supermarkets.
There is no cure for dry eye, but its symptoms can be alleviated.
Symptoms of dry eye
The symptoms of dry eye syndrome include:
- stinging or burning
- itchiness (particularly in the corners of the eyes)
- occasional blurred vision
- tired eyes (a feeling like you need to close the eyes)
- mucus around the eyelids, particularly upon waking
- a feeling of grittiness, or the sensation of something foreign in the eye (like an eyelash or a grain of sand).
Causes of dry eye
Some of the factors that cause or contribute to dry eye include:
- ageing - tear production slows with advancing age
- medical conditions - such as
- medication - including , , antihistamines, diuretics and beta-blockers
- climatic conditions - such as dry air and wind
- - such as cigarette smoke, dust or chemical exposure
- any trauma to the eye (including burns)
- infrequent or incomplete blinking
- long periods of screen time
Complications of untreated dry eye syndrome
Adequate tear production is vital to the health of the eye. Complications of untreated dry eye can include:
- eye discomfort (as described above)
- fluctuations in vision
- damage to the front surface of the eye (the cornea) - in extreme cases can lead to permanent scarring.
Diagnosis of dry eye
Dry eye is diagnosed through tests, including:
- Examination of the eye surface under a specially designed microscope (a ‘slit lamp biomicroscope').
- Putting a drop of sodium fluorescein (a yellow dye) into the eyes. The dye mixes with the tears, allowing evaluation of the tear film.
- Strips of filter paper placed between the lower lid and eye to measure tear production.
Treatment for dry eye
There is no cure for dry eye, but the condition can be successfully managed. Treatment may aim to increase tear production, maintain tear film volume or prevent excess loss of tears.
A range of options may be used, including:
- Make a conscious effort to blink more often.
- Use eye drops, gels or ointments to lubricate the surface of your eyes (these are sometimes called ‘artificial tears’).
- Boost the humidity of the air at home and at work by placing bowls of water around the room to evaporate.
- Some medication can cause dry eye. Consult your doctor about any medicine side effects.
- Special plugs can be inserted into the tear ducts to prevent excessive loss of tears.
- In severe cases, surgery may be considered.
Inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis)
Some people with dry eyes can experience inflammation of the eyelids (also known as blepharitis).
Bacteria that normally live harmlessly on the skin can cause an infection of the eyelid margins. The result is crusting of the lashes or lid margins (particularly upon waking) and an itchy sensation.
If left untreated, blepharitis can stimulate inflammation, causing the eyelids to become red, swollen and irritated. The inflammation can often disrupt normal tear production causing dry eye.
Treatment for blepharitis
Although low-grade blepharitis is often a chronic condition, most cases respond well to appropriate management. Treatments include:
- Cleaning around eyelid margins with a cotton bud or clean face cloth and eyelid scrub.
- Eye drops (artificial tears) for dry eyes.
- Antibiotic ointments and medications prescribed by your doctor.