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Dry eyes

Dry eyes are caused by a lack of tears. Tears are necessary for the normal lubrication of your eyes and to wash away particles and foreign bodies.

Alternative Names

Tearing - decreased; Eyes - dry

Considerations

If you have dry eyes, you will feel a burning, scratching, or stinging sensation. You may also have strained or tired eyes after reading, even for short periods of time. If you wear contacts, they will likely feel uncomfortable. Having dry eyes for a while can lead to tiny abrasions on the surface of your eyes.

Common Causes

Common causes of dry eyes include:

  • Aging
  • Dry environment or workplace (wind, air conditioning)
  • Sun exposure
  • Smoking or second-hand smoke exposure
  • Cold or allergy medicines
  • An eye injury or other problem with your eyes or eyelids (like a drooping eyelid or bulging eyes )
  • Sjogren's syndrome -- includes dry eyes, mouth, and mucus membranes, and often rheumatoid arthritis or other joint disorder
  • Previous eye surgery

Home Care

Try artificial tears, available as either drops or ointment. Ointments last longer, but are thicker and can cause blurry vision for a short while after you place them in the eye.

  • Don't smoke. Avoid second-hand smoke, direct wind, and air conditioning.
  • Use a humidifier, especially in the winter.
  • If possible, stop using allergy and cold medicines that may be causing your symptoms.
  • Purposefully blink more often. Rest your eyes.

Call your health care provider if

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have red or painful eyes.
  • You have flaking, discharge, or a lesion on your eye or eyelid.
  • You have had trauma to your eye, or you have a bulging eye or a drooping eyelid.
  • You have joint pain, swelling, or stiffness.
  • You also have a dry mouth.
  • Your dry eyes do not respond to self-care measures within a few days.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your health care provider will take a medical history and perform a physical examination, including a careful eye examination.

To help better understand your dry eyes, your health care provider may ask the following:

  • How long have you had dry eyes? Does it involve one or both eyes?
  • Do you have it all of the time or does it only occur at certain times, with certain activities, or in certain places?
  • Does the dryness seem related to wind, dust, chemicals, sun, or light exposure?
  • Does it affect your vision?
  • Does it cause pain?
  • Do your eyelids close easily?
  • Have you noticed any drainage from your eyes?
  • Does anything make your dry eyes worse?
  • Does anything make your dry eyes better?
  • Have you tried artificial tears? Do they help?
  • Are you taking any medications? Which ones?
  • Have you had surgery or an injury to your eyes or nose?
  • Do you have allergies?
  • Have you been using any new cosmetics?
  • Do you have any other symptoms like dry mouth or joint discomfort?

Your health care provider may perform tearing tests that can help diagnose dry eyes. Artificial tears may be prescribed.

References

Tu EY, Rheinstrom S. Dry eye. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.

Carsons S. Sjögren's syndrome. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Harris ED Jr., et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2008:chap 69.

Yanoff M, Cameron D. Diseases of the visual system. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 431.

Updated: 10/22/2011

Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


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