What Is Dry Eye Syndrome?

By

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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man rubbing eyes

Dry eye syndrome, also called keratoconjunctivitits sicca, is a common medical condition that occurs when your eyes are unable to produce enough tears to help keep them moist and lubricated. Healthy tears are made of water, oil, and mucus-you need all three components. This common eye problem might result from an unbalanced composition of the tears your eyes produce, causing the tear film to evaporate quickly and fail to keep the entire eye adequately covered with moisture. Dry eye syndrome can also occur if you don’t blink enough, or if your eyes are partially open when you sleep.

Certain groups of people are more likely to develop dry eye syndrome; it’s typically seen in older adults or people that have certain medical conditions, such as certain immune system disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, that cause inflammation. Also, women tend to develop dry eye syndrome more often as a result of hormonal fluctuations. You might also develop dry eyes as a result of exposure to smoke or a dry environment where there are heavy winds. Occasionally, dry eye syndrome can be caused by medications, like those used for allergies.

Even though this eye problem frequently occurs in people that are otherwise healthy, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms. By recognizing the symptoms of dry eye syndrome and speaking with your doctor, you can help manage your dry eyes.

What are the symptoms of dry eye syndrome?

For many people, the symptoms of dry eye syndrome occur in both eyes. Depending on how severe your condition is, you might experience one or several symptoms, which can occur together or one at a time:

  • Eye redness

  • A feeling like you have something in your eye

  • A feeling of burning, itching, or stinging in your eye

  • Increased sensitivity to light

  • Excessive mucus in or around your eye

  • Difficulty wearing contact lenses

  • Blurry vision

  • Difficulty seeing while driving at night

  • Watery eyes, which occurs when your body produces extra tears in response to your eyes’ irritation

You might also notice your symptoms tend to get more dry toward the end of the day, or after you’ve been exposed to certain environmental conditions.

When should I talk to my doctor?

You should talk to your doctor if you’ve had any of the symptoms of dry eye syndrome, or if you’ve had them for an extended period of time. You doctor can make a positive diagnosis and recommend steps you can take to relieve your symptoms and restore moisture to your eyes.

What are some common treatments for dry eye syndrome?

The treatment method that works best for you will depend, in part, on the severity of your symptoms. Be sure to discuss your options with your doctor before beginning any treatment.

If you have a mild form of dry eye syndrome, you might be able to manage your symptoms using artificial tears, which can be applied to your eyes every few hours. If your symptoms are more serious, or if they last for a long period of time, your doctor might recommend any of the following treatments:

  • Eye drops to reduce inflammation – because inflammation along your eyelids and on the surface of your eyes can increase your discomfort and prevent natural tears from forming, your doctor might recommend anti-inflammatory medications to stop this from occurring.

  • Medications to stimulate tear production – certain types of medications work to make your eyes produce more tears. These types of drugs are usually prescribed as eye drops, gels, or pills.

  • Tear duct plugs – your doctor might suggest you have your tear ducts plugged. Your tear ducts are tiny holes located at the inner corner of each eye – they allow your tears to drain away from your eyes, but sometimes your tears can drain too quickly. This minor surgical treatment can stop your tears from draining too fast, and it can be temporary or permanent. Your doctor will insert a small plug, about the size of a grain of rice, into your tear ducts to slow the drainage of tears.

  • Changing contact lenses – certain types of contact lenses are designed to help your eyes retain moisture. Your doctor might suggest switching to one of these types of lenses if you frequently wear contacts.

In addition to these options, you can also help your eyes stay moist and lubricated by avoiding environmental factors that can cause them to dry out quickly. Staying away from smoke, direct wind, or direct air conditioning can help prevent your eyes from becoming irritated due to dryness.

Fortunately, dry eye syndrome can usually be easily managed and, in most cases, there is no danger of vision loss. Depending on how serious your symptoms are, you might have to try several treatments before finding what works best for you.  By talking with your doctor about your symptoms and concerns, you can easily explore your options for treatment and develop a plan that works best for you.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 24, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Dry eye syndrome. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000426.htm
  2. Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca. Merck Manual, Consumer Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/eye-disorders/corneal-disorders/keratoconjunctivitis-sicca
  3. Dry eyes: Definition. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-eyes/basics/definition/con-20024129
  4. Dry Eye Syndrome (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca). Medscape. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1210417-overview
  5. Dry eyes: Symptoms. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-eyes/basics/symptoms/con-20024129
  6. Dry Eye Syndrome (Keratoconjunctivitits Sicca) Clinical Presentation. Medscape. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1210417-clinical
  7. Dry eyes: Treatment and drugs. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-eyes/basics/treatment/con-20024129
  8. Punctal plugs. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-eyes/multimedia/punctal-plugs/img-20007894

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