Dry Eye

Symptoms

The usual symptoms of dry eye include:

  • stinging

  • burning

  • scratchiness

  • stringy mucus

  • excessive irritation from smoke and wind

  • discomfort when wearing contact lenses

  • watering eyes

Watering eyes from dry eye may sound illogical, but tears are also the eye's response to discomfort. If the tears responsible for maintaining lubrication do not keep the eye wet enough, the eye becomes irritated. Eye irritation prompts the gland that makes tears to release a large volume of tears, overwhelming the tear drainage system. These excess tears then overflow from your eye.

Treatment

There are several ways to treat dry eye. Eye drops called artificial tears can help lubricate the eyes. These are available without a prescription.

Another approach to keeping the eyes moist is to conserve your eyes' own tears. Tears drain out of the eye through a small channel into the nose. (This is why your nose runs when you cry.) Your eye doctor may close these channels either temporarily or permanently so that artificial tears last longer.

You can take steps to prevent your tears from evaporating by using a humidifier, wearing wrap-around glasses, and avoiding overly warm, dry rooms, hair dryers, wind, and smoke.

Some people with dry eye complain of "scratchy eyes" when they wake up. Using an artificial tear ointment or thick eye drops at bedtime can treat this symptom.

Tests/Diagnosis

An eye doctor is usually able to diagnose dry eye by examining the eyes. Sometimes tests that measure tear production are necessary. The Schirmer tear test involves placing filter-paper strips under the lower eyelids to measure the rate of tear production under various conditions. Another test uses a diagnostic drop to look for certain patterns of dryness on the surface of the eye.

Causes/Risk Factors

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 wide variety of common medications - both prescription and over-the-counter - can cause dry eye by reducing tear secretion. Be sure to tell your eye doctor the names of all the medications you are taking, especially if you are using diuretics, beta-blockers, antihistamines, sleeping pills, medications for "nerves", or pain relievers.

People with dry eye are often more prone to the toxic side effects of eye medications, including artificial tears. These people may need special preservative-free artificial tears.