How Is Dry Eye Treated?

Dry eye causes redness and irritation when your eyes don't make enough quality tears. Treatment options include artificial tears, lifestyle changes, and surgery.

woman putting in eye drops into eye

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Dry eye—sometimes called dry eye syndrome or dry eye disease—is a common condition that happens when your eyes aren’t producing enough quality tears to keep your eyes properly lubricated. Most people with dry eye experience painful symptoms such as redness, blurry vision, or eye irritation.

The good news: dry eye is generally easy to treat. Dry eye treatments focus on reducing dryness and preserving your vision. Your eye care specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist, can help you create a treatment plan that is right for you. 

Treatment options depend on what’s causing your symptoms and the severity of your condition. In most cases, you can treat dry eye with artificial tears (or, eye drops), lifestyle changes, and surgery, if necessary.

Artificial Tears and Gels 

Eye drops and ointments are often the first line of treatment for dry eye—and are usually effective for mild cases.  Your eye care specialist may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription options.                                                             

Over-the Counter (OTC)

The most common kind of eye drops used to treat dry eye are called “artificial tears.” Artificial tears mimic your own tears and can be used throughout the day, or as much as you need them. Most artificial tears are available over the counter, so they do not require a prescription.

If your eye care specialist recommends artificial tears, you can choose between multiple brands to find the one that’s best for you. Artificial tears come in a variety of types made of of different compounds and ingredients. You may opt to use preservative-free eye drops (or, eye drops without added ingredients or materials) if you:

  • Have sensitive eyes
  • Use eye drops more than six times a day
  • Wear contact lenses
  • Are allergic to preservatives 

Artificial tears are generally considered safe, but some side effects such as blurry vision or an allergic reaction are possible. If you experience side effects, you should stop using the eye drops and contact your eye care specialist immediately.

If you wear contact lenses, you can also use artificial tears safely, as long as the drops you purchase are approved for use with contact lenses. If you’re not sure if you can use a certain brand or type of artificial tears with your contact lenses, check with your eye care specialist or the in-store pharmacist at your local drugstore for guidance.

People who wake up with dry eyes may also consider using lubricating ointments or gels. Similar to artificial tears, ointments or gels are designed to add moisture to your eyes. These treatments are also available over the counter. Keep in mind: they can cause blurry vision, which is why most people use them before bed.

If you have started using artificial tears, ointments, or gels to help you manage your condition and you do not see any improvement in symptoms, your provider may prescribe you medication or recommend other treatments.

Prescription

If artificial tears aren’t sufficient to improve your dry eye symptoms, your eye care specialist may prescribe medical-grade eye drops to reduce swelling, produce quality tears, and prevent irritation

 The types of prescription eye drops for dry eye include:

Generic Medication Name    Brand Medication Name   Purpose 
Cyclosporine Cequa and Restasis Reduce inflammation and increase tear production
Lifitegrast   Xiidra Improve swelling and reduce inflammation and irritation

If you take prescription medications for other health conditions, it is a good idea to tell your eye care specialist. They can help you find an alternative eye drops prescription that works with the current medication(s) you are taking.

Surgeries and Procedures

If you are still experiencing symptoms after using OTC or prescription artificial tears, your eye care specialist may recommend a surgery or procedure. However, surgical procedures are generally not common. 

In the case that your eye care specialist does recommend a procedure, they may suggest:

  • Tear duct plugs: Your eye care specialist will insert plugs in your tear ducts (the small holes in your eye corners). This procedure can reduce the amount of tears that drain out of your eyes—which may help keep the tears in your eyes for a longer period of time. This is not a permanent procedure, as your provider can remove the tear plugs if and when needed.
  • Lower eyelid surgery: Sometimes dry eye can happen if your lower eyelids are too loose. In rare cases, your eye care specialist may opt to repair your eyelids to reduce the amount of tears that drain too quickly. 

Lifestyle Recommendations

In addition to medical treatment, treatment for dry eye often includes lifestyle or environmental changes. Your eye care specialist may recommend:

  • Reducing dryness in your environment: Use a humidifier, limit air conditioning, avoid dry or smoky settings (e.g., deserts or high altitudes), wear sunglasses outside, and reduce the use of hair dryers 
  • Boosting your intake of omega-3 nutrients (healthy fats): Take omega-3 supplements in pill or tablet form, eat more fatty fish (e.g., salmon or tuna), and include more flax seeds in your diet 
  • Practicing eye-healthy habits: Blink regularly, reduce your screen time, drink 8 to 10 glasses of water per day, get good sleep, try gentle warm compresses on your eyes, or massage your eyelids 

A Quick Review

Dry eye is a common, but frustrating condition that causes symptoms such as redness, blurry vision, and eye irritation. The condition occurs when your eyes aren’t able to produce the right quality or quantity of tears to keep your eyes properly lubricated.

Your eye care specialist can help you come up with a treatment plan to manage your condition. Your treatment options may depend on the cause of your dry eye and the severity of your symptoms. 

In most cases, over-the-counter and prescription treatments, such as eye drops and gels can reduce irritation. If you have a serious case of dry eye, your eye care specialist might recommend surgery—although, this is uncommon. Lifestyle changes may also help reduce dry eye triggers, improve symptoms, and support overall eye health. 

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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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  2. Golden MI, Meyer JJ, Patel BC. Dry eye syndrome. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  3. American Optometric Association. Dry eye.        

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is dry eye? Symptoms, causes and treatment.

  5. American Optometric Association. Contact lens care

  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Lubricating eye drops.

  7. Pucker AD. A review of the compatibility of topical artificial tears and rewetting drops with contact lenses. Cont Lens Anterior Eye. 2020;43(5):426-432. doi:10.1016/j.clae.2020.04.013

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