What causes dry eyes?

Eye dryness is a common malady that results from aging effects on the lacrimal glands that produce tears. The eye dryness may be relieved by the use of artificial tears which can be bought over-the-counter at most stores. If there is no relief from artificial tears, a visit to your physician is recommended to discover both the cause and treatment of dry eyes.
Causes of dry eyes can include sun exposure, wind exposure, cold air exposure, exposure to smoke, antihistamines, eye injury, Sjogren’s syndrome and eye surgery. If left untreated, dry eyes may cause tiny abrasions on the surface of the eyes.

Tear production normally decreases as we age. Although dry eye can occur in both men and women at any age, women are most often affected. This is especially true after menopause.

Dry eye can also be associated with other problems. For example, people with dry eyes, dry mouth and arthritis are said to have Sjögren’s syndrome. (For more information on Sjögren’s syndrome, see the “resource” section of this handout.)

People with similar systemic diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or some types of thyroid disease will often have dry eye.

A wide variety of common medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — can cause dry eye by reducing tear secretion.

Be sure to tell your ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) the names of all the medications you are taking, especially if you are using:

  • Diuretics for high blood pressure
  • Beta-blockers for heart or high blood pressure
  • Antihistamines for allergies
  • Sleeping pills
  • Medications for “nerves”
  • Pain relievers

Since these medications are often necessary, the dry eye condition may have to be tolerated or treated with eyedrops called artificial tears.

People with dry eye are often more prone to the toxic side effects of eye medications, including artificial tears. For example, the preservatives in certain eyedrops and artificial tear preparations can irritate the eye. These people may need special, preservative- free artificial tears.

Normally, the eye constantly bathes itself in tears. By producing tears at slow and steady rates, the eye stays moist and comfortable. Sometimes people do not produce enough tears or the appropriate quality of tears to keep their eyes healthy and comfortable. The condition is called dry eye. Tear production normally decreases as we age. Although dry eye can occur in both men and women at any age, women are most often affected. This is especially true after menopause. A person with dry eye should avoid anything that may cause dryness, such as an overly warm room, hair dryers, or wind. Smoking is especially bothersome.

The usual symptoms of dry eye include:

-- Stinging or burning eyes;
-- Scratchiness;
-- Stringy mucus in or around the eyes;
-- Excessive eye irritation from smoke or wind;
-- Excess tearing;
-- Discomfort when wearing contact lenses.

If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, you should see an eye doctor, who can talk to you about potential treatments to relieve some of these symptoms.
Dry eye syndrome most often occurs when the tear film (the mixture of salt water, oils from melbomian glands in the lids, and dissolved mucins from conjunctival tissue glands that coat the eye surface) is disrupted or compromised. The problem usually involves many factors, including excessive evaporation and other disruptions.

Although our tear glands tend to produce fewer tears naturally as we get older, this condition is not exclusively a problem of the elderly. Other factors, such as prolonged wearing of contact lenses, lasik surgery, lack of humidity in the air (often from heating and air conditioning), frequent air travel, and too much time spent in front of computer screens contribute significantly to this condition.

Sometimes, other disorders or diseases, including infections, conjunctivitis, allergies, or more serious conditions such as the autoimmune disorder Sjogrens Syndrome, sarcoidosis, and diabetes contribute to dry eyes. Certain medications can also lead to or aggravate the condition, including antidepressants and antihistamines.

Dry eye is more common in women, especially after menopause. Surprisingly, some people with dry eye may have tears that run down their cheeks. This is because the eye may be producing less of the lipid and mucin layers of the tear film, which help keep tears in the eye. When this happens, tears do not stay in the eye long enough to thoroughly moisten it.

Dry eye can occur in dry climates as well as due to the use of some drugs, including antihistamines, nasal decongestants, tranquilizers, and antidepressants. People with dry eye should let their health care providers know all the medications they are taking, since some of them may intensify the symptoms of dry eye.

Artificial tears, which lubricate the eyes, are the principal treatment for dry eye. They are available over the counter as eyedrops. Sterile ointments are sometimes used at night to help prevent the eyes from drying.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.