Last updated: Oct 28, 2016

How to treat dry eye

Millions of Americans suffer from stinging, burning, blurry, and gritty-feeling eyes due to dry eye syndrome. While everyone can have dry eyes once in a while, those folks have a chronic problem due to inadequate tear production. Some people are at higher risk of dry eye than others. (Here are some of the most common dry eye risk factors).

The good news is that there are several ways to treat dry eye, including natural remedies you can try at home, over-the-counter drops, and even prescription products and procedures that get at the root of the problem. What is important is to not ignore your symptoms. Because tears contain antibodies, lubricants, and nutrients that protect the eye, leaving these eye symptoms untreated for too long can damage your eyes.

Consider your medications

Often dry eye is a side effect of medication, everything from allergy meds (including antihistamine eye drops) to painkillers to blood pressure drugs. When you seek treatment for your eye symptoms, tell your doctor about any other meds you are taking. She can tell you if one of these (here are 14 dry eye-causing medications) could be triggering your dry eye. You might be able to switch to a different medication that doesn't cause dry eye. If that's not possible, read on.

Try OTC eye drops

The first line of treatment for dry eye is often eye drops known as artificial tears, which are available over-the-counter. These can be especially helpful if you have mild dry eye or if the symptoms only appear once in a while. Don't confuse them with allergy or red-eye drops, which contain medications that can actually make dry eye worse. And the trick is to find the right products, and use them correctly. There are many types available over-the-counter, and a doctor can help you pick the right kind to address your problem.

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"They're actually really effective but you have to be consistent," says Janet Cushing, OD, a clinical optometrist with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health in Madison. "Some people say they tried it once but it didn't really work. Consistent use really works."

If you find you need the drops more than six times a day, consider using a product with no preservatives, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, or talk to your doctor about other treatments.

Wash your eyelids

Easy home remedies can be effective treatments for dry eye. Washing your eyelids regularly and using a warm washcloth as a compress can help keep inflammation under control and restore the flow of oil to the eye. Oil (meiburm) is a necessary component of tears, and is produced by meibomian glands found on the rim of eyes, near your lash line.

"With your eyes closed, wash along the lash line," instructs Cushing. "You can use commercially available lid cleansers or baby shampoo. It really helps."

Some doctors may advise doing this every day, even if symptoms have subsided.

If the at-home version of this remedy doesn't work, ask your doctor about unblocking your oil glands in his or her office with a procedure called LipiFlow. This device provides pressure and warmth to the eye to clear blocked meibomian glands.

Plug your tear ducts

Tear ducts or puncta are located at the inner corners of your upper and lower eyelid. Their function is to drain tears away from the eye into the nose, which can be a problem if they're working overtime. Plugging the ducts with sterile lacrimal plugs or punctal plugs can take care of the problem.

"Basically you're just closing the duct that drains tears out of your eyes," explains Cushing. "Usually it's reversible with a silicone plug but you can actually cauterize and close the punctum permanently."

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Wear therapeutic contact lenses

Although regular contact lenses can actually cause dry eye if worn over the long-term, special contact lenses called scleral lenses or bandage lenses can fix the problem by protecting the surface of the eye and keeping moisture from seeping away.

Eat more omega-3s

Adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may also help relieve dry eye. Dietary sources include salmon, sardines, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseed.

Ask about prescription meds

In addition to over-the-counter preparations, there are prescription remedies available. There are eye drops that contain the anti-inflammatory compound cyclosporine (Restasis) and in 2016, the FDA approved a new type of dry eye treatment called lifitegrast ophthalmic solution (Xiidra). Corticosteroids, which also control inflammation, are also available in eye drop form, although these are generally not recommended for long-term use.