11 Triggers of Dry Eye, and What To Do About Them

Are your chronic eye symptoms due to dry eye syndrome? Here are some risk factors for dry eye and what to do about them.

There are many reasons your eyes may feel dry at any given time, including staring at the computer too long; a dry, windy day; and allergies. But if you have chronic eye symptoms that include burning, stinging, or itching, you may have a condition called dry eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS). One sign of KCS is counterintuitive—excessive tearing or watery eyes—which is just one more sign that there's an underlying problem with the lubrication of the eye.

If you have chronic eye symptoms and one or more of the following risk factors, you may have dry eye syndrome. Read on to find out how to get the proper treatment, reclaim your quality of life, and protect your eyes from future damage.

You're Getting Older

Aging affects all body parts, and the eyes are no exception. Roughly 5% to 30% of older adults have dry eyes. As you get older, your ability to produce tears declines. 

Your tear ducts may have become obstructed over time or inflamed, which can be a byproduct of aging, Janet Cushing, OD, a clinical optometrist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health in Madison, told Health.

However, dry eye isn't usually severe due to aging or any other cause. Although it can affect the quality of life, it is also generally treatable with artificial tears and by applying warm compresses to the eye.

You Have Fluctuating Hormones

Among the millions of people in the United States who have dry eyes, the majority are women. One of the main reasons is that after menopause, women don't produce as many tears. And women who have early menopause, in their 40s or younger, and develop dry eye run the risk of damage to the eye surface. That's because they've had the eye condition over a more extended period than others. 

And menopause is not the only cause of dry eyes in women. Other hormonal changes can have the same effect.

"Pregnancy, contraceptive use, and hormone replacement therapy [HRT] can all cause dry eye," said Cushing.

HRT is not as commonly used to treat symptoms of menopause as it was in the past due to the high cancer risk. But combined estrogen and progesterone carry a much lower risk of dry eyes than estrogen alone. Because estrogen alone can raise the risk of endometrial cancer, it's usually reserved for women who have had a hysterectomy.

To treat dry eyes caused by menopause, pregnancy, contraceptive use, and HRT, you may want to try artificial eye drops first. If those don't do the trick, you can try anti-inflammatory medications. Surgery may be considered for severe cases of dry eye.

You Have an Autoimmune Disease

Dry eye is associated with several different autoimmune disorders, including Sjögren's Syndrome and thyroid eye disease.

Sjögren's Syndrome

With Sjögren's Syndrome, the immune system attacks the glands that make tears and saliva, resulting in dry eyes, mouth, nose, throat, and skin. Sjögren's syndrome is also linked to other autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Treatment for Sjögren's syndrome focuses on relieving the symptoms, so those with dry eyes will benefit from artificial tears. For severe symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend medications.

Thyroid Eye Disease

Thyroid eye disease, also known as Graves' eye disease, is another autoimmune disorder. Graves' eye disease is a rare disease that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid gland and the muscles and tissue surrounding the eye. As a result, you may experience dry eyes and pain when moving your eyes.

Treating thyroid eye disease can involve medication, supportive measures (like dark sunglasses or artificial tears), corticosteroids, or surgery.

You Spend a Lot of Time Staring at a Digital Screen

Yet another reason not to stay glued to a computer, video game, or smartphone for too long. It can cause your eyes to dry out. Why? 

"Using the computer significantly decreases the blink rate, and that's how you lubricate your eyes," explained Cushing.

Blinking, which happens an average of 15 times a minute (roughly every four seconds), keeps the eyes moist with the proper balance of tears, oil, and mucus.

Blinking less often means tears evaporate more quickly, which can occur with other activities involving intense concentration and focus. Those activities may include reading, driving, or even sewing.

If you experience dry eye as a result of excessive screen use, here are a few things you can try:

  • Turn your screen to "night mode" if your device has a feature like that
  • Position your screen to look downward instead of upward or straight ahead
  • Take regular breaks from staring at the screen
  • Use artificial tears
  • Limit screen time

You've Had Eye Surgery

People who undergo LASIK surgery to correct their vision may experience dry eyes after the surgery. Dry eyes are one of the most common post-operative symptoms.

"With LASIK, there is damage to the surface of the eye that can affect tear production," noted Cushing. "Part of it is probably because nerves are cut, and they are part of what tells the eyes to produce tears. It's like a feedback mechanism."

With LASIK, dry eyes are usually mild and last only about one month. But some people experience post-op symptoms for more than one year after surgery. Still, getting proper treatment is essential, as treating dry eyes will ensure the LASIK procedure is as successful as possible.

You Wear Contact Lenses

Many people also have dry eyes before LASIK surgery. In those cases, dry eyes are probably due to long-term contact lens use to correct the underlying vision problem. While contact lenses correct and improve your vision, dry eyes are one of the side effects of wearing them. Additionally, you may experience irritation, redness, or pain.

To prevent symptoms from wearing contacts, you should wear your contact lenses properly by:

  • Not sleeping with contact lenses in
  • Washing your hands when handling your lenses
  • Keep the lenses away from water
  • Properly clean your lenses with fresh contact solution

If you are handling your lenses properly and still experiencing symptoms, consider wearing your lenses for shorter periods. You might also consider switching to another type of contact lens. Or you could wear glasses more often or go for LASIK surgery.

You Take Medications That up Your Risk

A wide variety of medications, both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription, have labels that note dry eyes as a potential side effect. Those medications may decrease tear production. Some of the primary culprits include the following:

  • Blood pressure medications, including diuretics and beta-blockers
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Retinoids
  • Opioids
  • Bronchodilators
  • Antipsychotics
  • Medications used to treat Parkinson's disease

If you're experiencing dry eyes and are on one of these drugs, ask your healthcare provider about switching to an alternative. If you can't switch medications, you may need to use lubricating artificial tear eye drops, available over the counter.

Your Environment Is Dry

Whether indoors or outdoors, dry air can aggravate your eyes. People who live in dry climates—or climates that are windy and smoky—are more prone to developing dry eyes. If you spend time in those places, regardless of whether you live there, the environment can cause your tears to dry up faster, which causes dry eyes.

Dry indoor environments can have the same effect, including anywhere with air conditioning or heat, hospitals, airplanes, and many work environments.

You Have Diabetes

Uncontrolled or untreated diabetes can cause various complications associated with your eyes, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and retinopathy. It's also common for diabetes to cause dry eyes. Around 54% of people with diabetes experience dry eye symptoms.

People with uncontrolled diabetes may have inadequate insulin levels that affect the function of the lacrimal gland, which produces the watery part of your tears. If the lacrimal gland becomes impaired, you may notice a decrease in the production of tears.

Additionally, high blood glucose levels can damage the nerves of your eyes, which causes a decrease in the quantity and quality of tears.

Treatment primarily focuses on treating uncontrolled diabetes, which may be through lifestyle changes and medication use. Your healthcare provider may recommend artificial tears, anti-inflammatory drops, or surgery to treat dry eye symptoms.

You Have a Vitamin A Deficiency

Not enough vitamin A can also lead to dry eyes, which is more common in developing parts of the world than others. 

Vitamin A is found in many foods—leafy green vegetables like broccoli; orange-colored vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin; and liver. If you can incorporate more vitamin A into your diet, it may help address dry eye symptoms.

You Have Allergies

Allergies and dry eyes are practically synonymous. The prevalence of dry eye closely mirrors the appearance of pesky seasonal allergens demonstrates it. Allergies can cause your eyes to become red and irritated, leading to dryness.

Unfortunately, many allergy medications also cause dry eyes, so if you're prone to this affliction, you may need to find other ways to protect yourself. Try wearing wraparound glasses when gardening or working in the yard, or if you are inside your house, use an air filter.

When To Reach Out to a Healthcare Provider

A healthcare provider should evaluate dry eye symptoms. If left untreated, a dry eye can damage your cornea, affecting your vision.

And if you have an underlying condition, it will be essential to treat that condition on top of the dry eye symptoms.

A Quick Review

Dry eye symptoms are common, especially for people with autoimmune diseases, diabetes, vitamin A deficiencies, or allergies. A dry environment, certain medications, eye surgery, and staring at digital screens, among other reasons, can also cause dry eye symptoms.

You'll want to look at what is causing your dry eyes to treat the symptom. Otherwise, you may have luck with artificial tears, medications, or surgery.

And since your dry eyes may be a clue to an underlying condition, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. They can guide you through the proper treatment.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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